Penelope is a movie that is hard to place, frankly, because it's kind of a mess. It is, however, rather charming and has the audience wanting to like it, like the sweet, though cloying kitten of a Tim Burton rom-com. It also has viewers wanting it to be more, questioning, "With a few edits and adjustments--maybe major adjustments--to elements of the plot, could it cross the line from messy into eclectic?" Alas, as it is, unfortunately it isn't worth recommending.
The movie is a pastiche of several things story-wise, attempting to mesh both fairytale and contemporary elements along the same lines as Shrek, Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish. This doesn't work to its advantage however, as it doesn't succeed in same way as these movies did, especially with its muddled and heavyhanded way of encouraging girls to "be themselves." It also spreads itself thin by disjunctively trying to please both children and adults, and winds up pleasing no one in particular for the full 80 minutes.
Opening with a whimsical and sweeping account of the Wilhern family and their family curse, Penelope's premise sounds and looks delightfully promising. Penelope (Christina Ricci) exposits in this segment that because of her ancestor jilting the poor daughter of a witch, the family was cursed to have a daughter with the face of a pig. Since the line produced only sons for centuries, she became that first-born daughter. Locked up and sheltered by her parents in their rickety mansion, she believes that the only way to undo the curse is to find an "equal," here determined to be class distinction, who will accept and marry her. It is at this point that the flimsy and messy central conflict kicks in: one of her suitors (Simon Woods), who incidentally didn't sign the gag order, runs away and alerts the press. Much to his dismay, they think he's insane and so he enlists the help of a lowly paparazzo, Lemon (Peter Dinklage), who has his own grudges against the Wilhern family.
From here the plot takes several annoying turns, all of which are confusing character-wise, perhaps because they are drawn so shallowly. Penelope is thrown around listlessly by the story and without Christina Ricci's lovable portrayal, the film could have much worse. What also holds things together is the romance between Penelope and one of her suitors, Max (James McAvoy), who, though he turns out to be a hired goon of Lemon's, predictably falls for her just as she is.
With its stellar cast--Catherine O'Hara plays the horribly wonderful shrieking mother, and Reese Witherspoon also makes an appearance--Penelope could have been so much more. But the experience of seeing these great actors on screen in a lovingly-rendered fantasy London becomes overshadowed by the disparate elements of the plot. The problems stand out too much to be simply glossed over and keep the film's charms from shining through.
Penelope is in theatres Fri., Feb. 29.