Some fantasies are just too fragile for the multiplex. When sweeping, startling epics like the Harry Potter, Narnia or Spiderwick Chronicles films are dominating the box office charts, it's hard for more whimsical, family-friendly fare like director Mark Palansky's charming debut Penelope to make any kind of impact. Thankfully, this sweet, smart modern fable -- a blending of "Beauty and the Beast" and the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, with a twist of "Romeo & Juliet" for good measure -- is one that will undoubtedly find an audience on DVD. (It was filmed in 2006 but not released in Feburary 2008, and most likely flitted in and out of theaters; I'm having a hard time remembering if it ever even materialized at my local cineplex.)
Penelope, penned by Leslie Caveny, spins the tale of the Wilhern family, a wealthy, cursed clan struggling to break a witch's spell that leaves daughter Penelope (Christina Ricci) with the nose and ears of a pig. Her indefatigable mother Jessica (Catherine O'Hara) and doting dad Franklin (Richard E. Grant) spends endless hours attempting to woo suitors, rich young men who can wed Penelope and bring an end to the family's torment. Try as they might, the stubborn Penelope insists on spoiling the careful planning, sending blue bloods scrambling at the sight of her face.
That is, until rough-and-tumble heir Max (James McAvoy) turns up and becomes intrigued by Penelope. His motives aren't altogether honorable -- slimy tabloid journalist Lemon (Peter Dinklage) and scorned suitor Edward Vanderman III (Simon Woods) are scheming to publicly humiliate Penelope and enlist Max's help -- but he coaxes the recluse out of her shell, but not before some uncomfortable truths are laid bare.
It's not hard to see where the briskly paced Penelope will end up, but there are a few mild twists so I'll hold off from spoiling them. There's a wit and style to the entire enterprise that evokes Roald Dahl and the Babe films and much of that can be attributed to Caveny's script, which dips into rom-com cliche but always spikes it with a knowing wink. The cast also pulls their weight, with Ricci and McAvoy making an attractive couple, along with solid turns from O'Hara, Dinklage, Grant, Woods and Reese Witherspoon (making her debut as a producer here). Penelope makes the familiar seem fresh, not an easy feat in family-geared flicks, while conveying a story that's suitable for all ages.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this anamorphic widescreen transfer fairly pops off the screen, with rich blacks and intoxicatingly saturated colors that provide the appropriate level of fairy tale atmosphere well-suited to Penelope's fantastical tale. For those unwilling to accept that the year is 2008 and TV technology has progressed beyond the 'ol black-and-white box, a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer is also offered.
Dialogue, score and sound effects all sound crisp, clean and free from any distortion in this Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The surrounds don't get a heavy workout, as the film is largely confined to the front sound-stage, but there's hardly anything worth complaining about here. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included.
It would've been nice to hear Witherspoon, Palansky or Caveny hold forth on a commentary track, but fans will have to settle for the nine minute, 29 second behind-the-scenes featurette "The Making of a Modern Day Tale" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) which features the cast and crew discussing the film's genesis and execution. The only other supplements aren't even related to the film: A three minute, 24 second "sneak peek" of the hotly anticipated Twilight and a trailer for Fly Me to the Moon (which looks as though it might be one of the worst cinematic crimes ever perpetrated upon humanity).
Some fantasies are just too fragile for the multiplex. When sweeping, startling epics like the Harry Potter, Narnia or Spiderwick Chronicles films are dominating the box office charts, it's hard for more whimsical, family-friendly fare like director Mark Palansky's charming debut Penelope to make any kind of impact. Thankfully, this sweet, smart modern fable is one that will undoubtedly find an audience on DVD. Recommended.