The trend towards “adult” fairytales has got to stop. In the last few months alone, we’ve had the stale saccharine slop of August Rush, the sword and snooze dullness of Stardust, and the one step from stupid Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. The notion of juxtaposing the whimsical against the mature is not a new one. Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton practically wrote the rulebook on such cinema. But the current movement in such storytelling seems to push the extremes of both dynamics. When the material is serious, it’s downright dark and frequently disturbing. And when it’s fanciful, it’s like potent, pixie stick laced candy floss. Now comes Penelope, a self-esteem allegory masquerading as Cinderella with a snout. Sadly, instead of exploring the far reaches of the subgenre, it sinks directly into the maudlin middle.
Plagued by a bizarre family curse, little Penelope Wilhern is born with a pig’s features - muzzle, ears, slightly porcine chin. According to legend, only the love of one of her own - read: a rich blueblood - can break the spell. So, ever since her teens, Mother Wilhern has been trying to marry her off. Unfortunately, all the men who see her run screaming. One even takes his story to the press, and the resulting scandal embarrasses his wealthy father. Desperate to clear his name, he hires a paparazzi with a connection to the Wilhern clan to help. Their plan? Find a down on his luck aristocrat to woo Penelope, and when the time is right, snap her photo. As luck would have it, gambling addicted Max is willing to help. But when he learns that their target is a wonderful girl, not some horrible monster, his cooperation becomes questionable.
Resembling the kind of tale Aesop might spin after one too many vats of homemade ouzo, Penelope plods along on a desire to endear. All it really does is infuriate. This is the kind of movie that believes pitching all its performances somewhere between cartoonish and caterwauling results in a sense of reverie. When undersized actor Peter Dinklage is the best thing about your otherwise overwrought parable, something is wrong with this motion picture. While it’s not bad in a Larry the Cable Guy, remade J-Horror film kind of fashion, first time filmmaker Mark Palansky underachieves in a spectacular manner. Clearly devoid of the creative vision that sparks real movie magicians to their level of imagination, he merely lets the marginal script by Everyone Loves Raymond staff writer Leslie Caveny sink them both.
The first major flaw in this film is Penelope herself. As played by Ricci, she’s a sensible gal with a great personality, pretty eyes, and a slightly swinish nose. There is no attempt to make her ugly - either in façade or philosophy. She’s an unfortunate innocent who has used her malady to see beneath the surface of most everyone she meets. Yet in any Beauty and the Beast story, we need a monster - if not literally, figuratively. Penelope‘s narrative instead goes for standard villainy: a photographer with a grudge; a madwoman of Chaillot mother; a wealthy moron who believes our heroine to be a horror; a dour and dense father. Max is not a good guy so much as a welcome relief from all the mustache-twirling treachery.
It doesn’t help that Catherine O’Hara (as one hideous harpy of a mom) and Simon Woods (as the stunned suitor) use over the top as a benchmark for further acting histrionics. Both are so arch and mannered that you’re not sure whether to slap them…or slap them. Of course, a fairy tale isn’t a bastion of subtlety, but why allow a couple of stars to subvert everything you’re doing. It’s clear what Penelope could have been whenever Dinklage, Ricci, or James McAvoy’s Max is onscreen. They bring a kind of realism to this material that makes it palatable. Without their presence, we are stuck in a situation where nothing seems valid. It’s just fakery on top of fabrication. Sadly, some of the acting makes it even more counterfeit.
Palansky’s direction also doesn’t help. Clearly inspired by the work George Miller did on Babe: Pig in the City, the novice draws a multicultural, intercontinental portrait of Penelope’s world. The metropolis she lives in resembles several urban centers, while characters speak in a combination of accents (mainly between British and American). This contrasting conceit, probably used to keep the material ethereal and timeless, grows tedious after a while. Fairytales need some kind of foundation - a firm mythos, if you will - to keep the allusions sound. Without it, we begin to get lost, or worse, ask questions that don’t pertain to the narrative or the characters. Aside from clear factual fallacies (how, exactly, does one’s carotid artery end up in their nose?) and a lame denouement, the lack of such an underpinning really ruins this film.
Yet Penelope is not a complete disaster. There is a nice chemistry between Ricci and McAvoy, and the second act appearance of producer Reese Witherspoon as a disgruntled courier who befriends our heroine offers some funny moments. And there are times when the earnest quality of Penelope’s dream to be normal touches our own sense of self. But this is not the quirky feel goof farce the marketing would have you believe, nor is it a shockingly original take on the standard ‘once upon a time’ material. Instead, Penelope is as mixed as the motives of the entire Wilhern family. On the one side are a failed father and a shrill mom. On the other is their darling daughter and her optimistic worldview. Somewhere in the middle lies this lox of a movie.