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Once upon a time, there was a rich family called the Cobblepots...er, Wilherns, who were cursed to give birth to a deformed, freakish child. One day, the couple couldn't handle the strain anymore, so they hid the child away from the whole world. Penelope is a modern fairy tale, an ugly duckling story about what happens when the child grows up and faces the world and its realities.
Christina Ricci plays the title character, who is now 25 and still waiting for her curse to be broken. She is a regular person but with a pig's nose and ears, the result of a curse put on her family by a witch, long ago. The only way for the curse to be broken is for a blue blood (person of the rich class, of which the Wilherns are a part) to fall in love with her. Suitor after suitor run away from her, but when one of them, Max (James "So Hot Right Now" McAvoy), is hired by a reporter to infiltrate the Wilhern home and get photographic evidence of the pig girl, Penelope finally falls in love. However, Max refuses to squeal, but he has to reject Penelope anyway for questionable reasons, and the heartbreak causes Penelope to escape her parents' clutches into the real world, where her adventure really begins.
One of the biggest accomplishments of Penelope is that it doesn't feel uneven. It can't be pigeonholed into a single genre; it might be a romantic comedy or a drama or a fantasy. The writer, Leslie Caveny ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), and the director, Mark Polansky (a new guy, but second assistant director on Michael Bay's The Island), walk a wonderful line of just telling their story, and they do it with style. The film truly feels unique. Amanda McArthur's production design is remarkable, creating, among other things, a surreal Wilhern household, and a fantasy New York City, one where no one's going to get mugged. Use of rich greens and purples give Penelope a unique look. Some extreme angles of buildings that seem to lean and overwhelm the frame are reminiscent of German Expressionism. The cinematography and camerawork by Michel Mathieu (Paris, je t'aime) are amazing; the camera wanders around whistfully, often embodying Penelope's sense of wonder at what she's seeing.
Penelope has lots of good blood in her...er, it. Ricci has established herself as perhaps the best actress of her generation, being just as beautiful as someone like Jessica Alba but with infinitely more range. Catherine O'Hara (Home Alone), the quintessential frantic mom, is helpfully hyperactive as Mrs. Wilhern, who will do anything to get the curse lifted so that the Wilhern clan can have a normal life and public image. Simon Woods is hilarious as a real swine, one of Penelope's potential suitors, and his rich father is played by Nigel Havers (Chariots of Fire). Nick Frost, of Shawn of the Dead fame, has a small cameo as one of Max's gambling buddies, and he uses an American accent (or at least tries to). Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the film, has a few minutes of screen time, cast against type as a tough scooter-chick who befriends Penelope.
Penelope is self-consciously a fairy tale. It has a happy ending, and everyone either gets what is coming to them or learns their lesson. One of the main characters is a little person (Peter Dinklage) with a lot of sci-fi spy gadgets. The public embraces a pig-faced girl (I told you this New York was make-believe). In any case, it very much qualifies as a chick flick and won't hold the interest of anyone who doesn't enjoy such things. But Penelope is a great, family friendly movie with a good message.
I watched a reviewer's copy which appears to be the same that will be released commercially, though some features could change.
You're not going to find a better image in standard definition than the one on this disc. The DVD I watched allows you to choose between the widescreen and full screen versions. The 2.35:1 looks wonderful, with the rich, vibrant colors one would expect of a modern film. There are no defects to be found whatsoever in the image. The disc is enhanced to fit widescreen TV's perfectly. Penelope is a pleasure to look at. Please watch this DVD upscaled.
The DVD contains but one audio track, which is English 5.1-surround. It sounds great, making the standard use of the surround channels. Music and various sound effects come out of the back channels. The base is good, and with the appealing music in the film, the soundtrack is great on Penelope . However, don't expect any satisfying explosions or car chases. It also has subtitles in English and Spanish.
Penelope has but one special feature, which is a behind-the-scenes featurette called "The Making of a Modern Day Tale." It's the pretty standard feature, with interviews with the director and some crew and the stars. They talk a little bit about the production design, which is the most notable part of Penelope. It is widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 TV's, and it's nine minutes long.
Any movie that ends with Sigur Ros' "Hoppipolla" is a winner in my book, if even for the fact that the filmmakers know how to use music to make their images more compelling. Penelope is very short (about 85 minutes), which will be a relief for a lot of young men forced to watch this by their girlfriends. But there is, at least, a lot to appreciate in this film even if it isn't your cup of swill, like the great performances and competent directing. The DVD is of good quality, but it doesn't have great special features, so Penelope gets a solid "Recommended," and it comes out on July 15.