Once upon a time there was a film that made no bones about being a contemporary fairy tale. It began with a description of the Wilhern family curse, set upon them when one of the sons a century ago impregnated a servant and, at his family's urging, rejected her. The servant committed suicide, and the girl's mother (conveniently, a witch) proclaimed that the next daughter born into the Wilhern family would be cursed with the face of a pig, so that they too would know what it feels like for their daughter to be painfully rejected. Of course the curse came with a loophole, as all fairytale curses do: if the daughter is able to find a blue-blooded suitor who will love her and marry her "till death do they part," pig features and all, the curse will be lifted. And how does the curse leap into the next century? Well, the Wilherns kept having boy babies, and the one normal girl whom everyone thought broke the curse was really the result of an affair, so over a hundred years later we finally get the first legitimate baby girl, born with pig parts.
Unlike "Enchanted," which was played both for laughs and romantic comedy, "Penelope" is played curiously straight, with just a piglet's twist of tongue-in-cheek humor by writer Leslie Caveny ("Everybody Loves Raymond") and relatively new director Mark Palansky. What laughs there are occur mostly in the first act, or else they're generated by Catherine O'Hara, who has us in stitches in almost every scene playing the poor mother of the girl they decided to name Penelope. The rest of the cast, though, has a hard time tapping into whatever energy the screenplay offers, and the result is a film that's pleasant enough and cute enough, but one which lacks the spark that makes a movie like this seem magical. And yet, it's still warmly entertaining, mostly because this ugly duckling tale offers one of the best role models for accepting who you are. Penelope (Christina Ricci) deals with her "affliction" much better than her parents, who faked her death while she was an infant and basically imprisoned her in her own home. And when it was time to find a suitor, they decided to monitor things in a controlled environment, having them get to know Penelope through a mirror where only she could see them, and then finally revealing her. And when the young men tried to run away, the butler went after them to ensure that there would be no telling anyone about the Wilhern "pig girl."
But one little piggy-viewer got away, and this son of a wealthy businessman named Edward (Simon Woods) went to police, who only laughed at him, leaving him determined to prove that this pig girl really exists. The same thing happens to a reporter (Peter Dinklage) who got too close to the Wilherns and has one blind eye to prove it. The two join forces to form the villainous thread, hiring a down-and-out gambler named Max (James McAvoy) to go undercover and try to get a photograph of Penelope. But of course Max develops feelings for her, even after he sees her and bolts like all the rest.
There's a little "Roman Holiday" in here too, as Penelope decides to cover her face and check out the real world, where she meets the bike-riding Annie (Reese Witherspoon). The trajectory is pretty straight with this plot, and surprisingly even-keeled once we get past the clever, humorous opening. When you compare this one to "Enchanted" or "Edward Scissorhands," you may not be able to explain what's causing it, but you realize it's missing oomph, pizzaz snap crackle and pop, and as a result, magic. Even the London and Buckinghamshire backdrops aren't enough to generate the jolts that this one needs. Villains have always been more interesting than nice people, and maybe Ricci plays Penelope a little too even-tempered. There are also plenty of scenes where you wonder why Palansky keeps the cameras running, rather than going for quicker cuts to move the story along. Even Witherspoon, who's normally a sparkplug, isn't able to rise above the material and the pacing.
And yet, as I said, there's something likeable about this film. It's heart is in the right place, even if it's not pumping furiously enough. The concept is fun, the make-up job on Ricci's schnoz looks convincing enough, and McAvoy tries to make their "romance" sizzle. Trouble is, there's not much chemistry evident between the two co-stars, and Witherspoon seems wasted in bit part that maybe puts her in unfamiliar territory as "the friend." In the end, choosing to make a fairytale film and having viewers expect it to be "magical" ends up being more of a burden than those pig features on Penelope.
Viewers can choose to watch in full screen (1.33:1) or widescreen (2.35:1). Production values are quite good, with bright, bold colors and surprising sharpness for a DVD-- though the level of detail does vary, with darker scenes a little fuzzier.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does a good job of filling the viewing space, and the low-frequency tones are picked up as nicely as the mid-range tones are spread nice and wide across the front mains. The dialogue sounds natural, and there's nothing in the way of distortion to mar it or the FX or ambient sound. Overall, it's a stronger presentation than the video.
The default bonus feature is a sneak peak for "Twilight," the studio's forthcoming film about a good girl who falls for the ultimate bad boy . . . a vampire. Once you get past that, which plays automatically before the main feature, the only other extra is a pretty standard six-minute making-of feature that combines cast/filmmaker interviews with clips and a few behind-the-scenes shots.
Think fairy tale, and you think magic. But as entertaining as "Penelope" is, there just isn't that spark that makes you think, "wow" or "how fun." If this were a potion, it would be as simple as throwing in a little more energy with those pig parts, along with a few more zinger lines, and bam, you'd have a great film.