Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Penelope

Posted By on Wed, Mar 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Despite the gratuitous howls of self-entitled bloggers and Internet trolls, Christina Ricci is not a pig. It's just that her title character in this curiously quirky modern fantasy is the victim of a curse that burdens her with a large, porcine snout in place of her dainty little button. As the opening narration hastily explains, Penelope Wilhern's wealthy great-great-grandfather betrayed his servant-girl true love to marry a socially appropriate debutante. Hence, the family's next first-born daughter (Ricci's Penelope) was doomed to unspeakable ugliness.

As is the case with such hexes, there's an escape clause: The spell will break once she finds "one of her kind who will love her faithfully." Because a nearby artery makes plastic surgery unlikely, Penelope has to surmount a series of girl-power hurdles and learn some long-buried truths about herself before the magic can dissipate. Hoping to break the spell and re-establish her socialite credentials, Penelope's shrill harridan mother (Catherine O'Hara) hides her baby in the attic, and then arranges speed dates with blue-blooded suitors, who tend to bolt at the first sight of young Ms. Piggy.

Eventually, however, Prince Charming arrives — in the form of James McAvoy — with the stomach to look beyond the face to the girl's inner beauty, though he's got enough secrets and hangups to put off the happy ending. There's also the sleazy menace of Peter Dinklage as a paparazzi obsessed with hunting down the hog-faced princess. And what's a self-respecting fairy tale without an angry dwarf?

Like its heroine, Penelope is ultimately likable despite its clunky self; it warms up easily after its initial awkwardness. The camera swoons and swoops with appropriate fairy-book grandeur, though there's slight murkiness that keeps the pic from really soaring. That's likely because an editing process hacked the story to pieces, lending a wobbly tone to some of the action.

What's more, so much effort's put into holding the plot down that the cast — the movie's greatest strength — scrambles to compensate — and overdoes it. Also, few flicks could get away with sidelining the lovely Reese Witherspoon, yet here she's twiddlin' her thumbs as the nutty best friend. Fortunately there's enough pixie dust between the leads — despite Scotsman McAvoy's buried accent — to ensure this pig's ear becomes a silk purse.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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