Man, this movie takes me back. While I never saw it in theaters, I caught it on HBO, or something or other and immediately fell in love with it. I can’t quite explain it, but every time I saw it on TV, the world had to stop and I would watch it. Obviously, time goes on and develop new tastes in movies, but still holds a special place in my heart. I guess years later, I wanted to see how well it held up.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Christina Ricci (TEEN TITANS: THE JUDAS CONTRACT , CASPER , and upcoming films 10 THINGS WE SHOULD DO BEFORE WE BREAK UP  and FARAWAY EYES ), Catherine O’Hara (THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS  and HOME ALONE ), James McAvoy (SHERLOCK GNOMES , SPLIT , X-MEN: APOCALYPSE , VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN , and upcoming films GLASS  and X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX ), Peter Dinklage (AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR , THREE BILLBOARDS , ANGRY BIRDS , PIXELS , and the upcoming THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 ), and Simon Woods (stuff I’ve never seen or heard of). In support, we have Richard E. Grant (THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD , JACKIE , and upcoming films CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?  and THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS ), Nick Frost (TOMB RAIDER , THE HUNTSMAN 2 , and upcoming films THE FESTIVAL  and SLAUGHTERHOUSE RULEZ ), and Reese Witherspoon (A WRINKLE IN TIME , HOME AGAIN , SING , and the upcoming– *double take!* LEGALLY BLONDE 3 ??? Dude, hell yeah!).
Now for the crew. Directing, we have Mark Palansky, known for 2 episodes of A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2017 – ongoing). Penning the screenplay is Leslie Caveny, known for 6 episodes of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND (1996 – 2005). Composing the score is Joby Tolbot, known for SING, and the upcoming SING 2 (2020). The cinematographer is Michel Amathieu, known for stuff I’ve never seen or heard of. Finally, the editor is Jon Gregory, known for THREE BILLBOARDS, and the upcoming PETERLOO (2018).
This is my honest opinion of: PENELOPE
A long time ago, a son of the wealthy Wilhern family had an affair with a lowly servant. Abandoning her for his betrothed wife, the servant girl jumped off a cliff, and her mother, the town witch cursed the family: the firstborn Wilhern daughter shall be cursed with a face of a pig. As the generations went by, however, the Wilhern family only had sons.
That is… until the present day when Franklin (Richard E. Grant) and Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) gave birth to the first Wilhern daughter, Penelope (Christina Ricci), who has the snout and ears of a pig. As it was believed that the only way to lift the curse was to be married to someone of equal social standing, Jessica has spent many years betrothing Penelope to upscale sons of wealthy families, but all have been frightened away. When the most promising of her suitors, a down and out gambler named Max (James McAvoy), doesn’t pan out, Penelope has had enough of her mother’s attempts to end the curse and ventures out into the world on her own.
Oh yeah, this movie holds up unbelievably well.
First and foremost, this movie has CHARM. It’s as likable as I remember. Ricci as Penelope is an utter delight and constantly puts a smile on my face for how down-to-earth, smart, and even kind of crafty she is. And for someone who’s spent her entire life being perceived as a monster, she seems surprisingly well-adjusted, but not immune to her own emotions. I even especially enjoy how she’s the one who runs away when Max is simply staring at her, which is a far cry from the usual reactions. It’s such a foreign reaction to her that she’s not sure how to feel about it. It’s really cute with a hint of heartbreaking. Even the fish-out-of-water elements aren’t too heavily drawn on. Like, okay, she forgets that hotel rooms aren’t free, but still understands the concept of money and its uses. Let’s face it, when you’re new at something, you’re either equipped and ready to deal with it, or you’re nervous and what would seem pretty obvious flies way over your head. She forgets to catch a sliding mug of beer, doesn’t understand sexual innuendos, and her reaction to so many strange things are pretty amusing.
As unlikable as Jessica can be, I feel like only O’Hara could have made this role work as effectively as she did. I mean, anyone else I feel like would be putting on a role that would look like she’s punishing Penelope for her looks, rather than being desperate to end the curse and have her live a life that’s normal. Also, O’Hara is so expressive that she’s just as delightful to watch as Ricci. Her wide eyes and nervous smiles just crack me up. I mean, she’s basically playing a cartoonish version of her role in the Home Alone movies, which is saying something, as they’re pretty cartoonish too, but she plays the role so well that’s it’s hard not to feel engaged.
And of course, the amazing future phenomenon that will eventually be Peter Dinklage is great as well. Usually, scummy reporter characters are pretty one-dimensional and just want to get fame and notoriety for the “big story,” but Dinklage brings layers to the table. For one thing, he’s really not that scummy. He’s a dude who lost an eye for his job of trying to get a picture of baby Penelope. Having exhausted all resources, as well as believing that Penelope was dead, thanks to an overly-elaborate fake death for Penelope, and certainly resorts to some pretty silly measures to get what he wants. But he’s never portrayed as a cruel man. He’s got a tarnished reputation and isn’t well-respected among his colleagues. But he never blamed Jessica for losing his eye, he never wanted to hurt Penelope, or ridicule her, he just didn’t want to be seen as crazy anymore.
Grant as Franklin is pretty enjoyable and is not afraid to think that Jessica is a nut-case, but I kind of wish we saw more of his playful relationship with Penelope. There’s a bit where one of Penelope’s suitors, Edward (Simon Woods), escapes and Jessica starts frantically telling everyone to start moving. Then Penelope starts sarcastically talking about living by the beach, her dad joins in on the gag, then the suggestion to live in Paris, then her dad says that it could provide an opportunity to practice her French, to which Jessica realizes how dumb the decision is to move. I wanted more of that playful two-verse-one banter. That was cute stuff.
Max isn’t exactly the most original character, being a washed up, gambling-addicted alcoholic with a heart of gold, but McAvoy is so phenomenally likable that you can’t help but enjoy his character. The same could be said about Witherspoon’s inclusion as Annie, despite having fairly limited screen time. Pretty underutilized though, as the character who shows Penelope the ropes of the outside world. Eh, whatever, she was at the height of popularity at the time. Seeing her in a very supportive role wasn’t exactly common for her, so it’s pretty refreshing.
With all of my praises though, I do have a fairly decent-sized gripe, and that’s the ending. Much of the story’s message seems to be about accepting self-image. Everyone’s got something about themselves that they don’t like. Small breasts, freckles, hair color, I myself hate my baby-fat cheeks and the way my earlobes protrude out. The ultimate message is to be proud of who you are and not to change because someone else wants you to, which is a great message for younger audiences. However, the movie’s delivery of this message is… very confused.
The curse is broken through a very confusing means. The curse states that “one of her own kind” must love her. First of all, that’s incredibly vague. Second, it’s broken because she exclaims that she loves herself for who she is. Then wham, regular nose and ears. So… is this movie saying that if you love your physical faults, then they’ll magically become exactly as you want them to be? That’s… really not how it works, even for this fairy tale. It only gets stranger as the ending continues and she claims that she misses the face that caused her so much trouble, but when Halloween comes around and Penelope’s pig face is a staple among kids, she says to a child who wanted to be Penelope that it’s refreshing that she’s not. For someone who looks in the mirror missing her own nose, she’s certainly wishy-washy about her feelings regarding it.
If I were writing the story, her pig snout and ears would be permanent. The curse was from a different time and intended for a different daughter that never came to be. The curse was meant to give that great-grandfather’s daughter a full-on pig’s head, but because the curse got so “diluted” over the coming generations that Penelope was born with mostly human features, minus the snout and ears. I would also have this be a reason why Jake-slash-the witch of the original curse stuck around for Penelope, sort of as penance for cursing an otherwise innocent girl and making Jake’s role more prominent as a mentor kind of character who encourages her to break free of her mother’s obsessive control.
In retrospect, the snout represents a perceived fault from a grievance from many years ago. But Penelope has never seemed to be all that bothered by her own appearance. She’s only ever wanted to get out into the world and interact with people. Even during the flashback of her childhood when she encounters other kids, sure, they look at her like she’s weird, and let’s face it, a pig nose on a human being is pretty weird, they weren’t running away from her like she was a monster. Kids don’t have a true sense of reality yet and are a lot more open to what is perceived to be unnatural. She’s only self-conscious about the snout because her mother and the reactions of all her potential suitors make her self-conscious. The ultimate message is to not care about what others say about how you look, but to take pride in it.
Overall, yes, this movie has problems. Even some serious ones. I’m looking at you, ending. But you know something, I barely care, as most of this movie is so cute, sweet, and charming. It’s criminally underrated as fairy tales go, thanks in large part to Disney’s monopoly on the subject matter, but I think there’s more than a few people out there who save room for this nostalgic little gem of the new millennium. I loved it then, I love it now.
My honest rating for PENELOPE: 4/5