01 March 2008


Once upon a time, there were these fantasy stories that people called fairy tales. Kids loved them, adults respected them, and so on. Then came the modern age. Yes, kids still like fairy tales, for the most part, when they’re not playing video games or watching television. Adults, it seems, are too busy to be interested. But that doesn’t stop movie studios from trying to create quirky comedies that they can bill as “fairy tales for adults.”
Producer/actress Reese Witherspoon has found one such tale to present in the movie “Penelope.” It’s not exactly for kids, really. But I’m not sure adults will like it either. Indeed, there seems to be a battle throughout the film about whether to make a sweet children’s story or a hip deconstructionist morality play for grown-ups. Either way, I doubt either group will be completely satisfied.
The film stars Christina Ricci, who finally seems to be breaking out of her eccentric macabre teenager mode, as the title character who is stricken with a family curse that caused her to be born with the nose and ears of a pig. Now nearing adulthood, she is pressured by her parents (mainly her mother, played by Catherine O’Hara) to find a fellow aristocrat to marry, since falling in love with “one of her own kind” will break the spell.
Naturally, her face frightens off most every suitor, including one spoiled brat who goes to great lengths to get revenge by hiring a diminutive reporter to help him get a picture of Penelope and clear the charges of insanity leveled at him by the public.
To infiltrate Penelope’s mansion, they hire Maxwell Campion (James McAvoy), a gambling addict who has lost all his money and is desperate enough to go on the mission for them. Oddly enough, and probably predictably, he falls in love with her, but a secret he carries keeps him from declaring his feelings for her.
And so begins the star-crossed love story with themes that echo “Beauty and the Beast” and other nursery stories. It’s a simple theme, but one that is burdened by an overly complicated story. It seems that ff you’re going to present a complex story, you should then present complex emotions and themes.
While the story is smack in the middle of the modern age, albeit in some imaginary cross between London and New York City, the emotions are a little too simplistic for a modern, adult audience. But kids will likely be confused by some of the more subtle machinations of the plot.
Still, it has some charm. Ricci and McAvoy make good romantic leads, and Peter Dinklage gives a surprisingly memorable turn as the reporter. There is some comedy here and there, but there’s too many failed eccentricities and quirks for the humor to remain consistent.
To its credit, there is a very fine line here, between juvenile and adult fantasy. To balance it, the filmmakers would need to employ both that knowing adult edge and a refreshing kind of innocence. Here, the alternating lopsided game of tug-of-war just wears thin.