In Tinseltown, other than dogs no other animal has the “cuteness quotient” of the pig. In the new romantic fable, “Penelope,” the filmmakers create the warmest pig tale since 1995’s “Babe.”
When a peasant woman is wronged by wealthy suitors and commits suicide, her mother – a witch, cast a spell on the offending Wilhern family that the first born girl would be born with the features of a pig. For five generations, the family eluded the curse until the birth of little Penelope (Christina Ricci). Her frantic mother, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) fakes her death and hides her daughter away in the house fighting off attempts of hungry members of the media to photograph the poor facially-disfigured girl. Only one photographer, Lemon (Peter Dinklage) managed to get close enough to take a picture – and as result lost his eye!
But Jessica will not be denied. She tries to set Penelope up with every rich young suitor, looking for the one who can break the spell. One by one, each boy runs in horror everytime Penelope exposes her face. After encountering a rich spoiled brat, Edward Vanderman, Jr. (Simon Woods), he goes public to expose the hidden debutante. Soon, Vanderman is discredited and no one believes his tale of the “pig-faced girl” – except Lemon. The two conspire with a down-and-out-gambling-blueblood, Max (James McAvoy) to get a picture of Penelope so that everyone can live happily ever after.
While looking to capture a picture, Max finds love instead. Their moments together (the two sharing a quiet conversation behind a two-way mirror) are tender, warm and very romantic – that is until he sees her for the first time. This time she runs away and the instantly-smitten musician must battle class differences and his own insecurities to win her heart. Meanwhile, Penelope escape her private fortress, with a scarf covering her face, and finds adventure and her first friend, Annie (Reese Witherspoon) finally free from her mother’s controlling glare.
If Johnny Depp has carved out a career playing off-beat, misunderstood male characters, his female counterpart and soulmate is Ricci. While her character’s face may be disfigured, her heart is inviting and warm. Ricci conveys a palatable sense of loneliness layered with emotional depth and pain as the title character. Isolated all of her life, Penelope creates a fantasy world of her own convinced that no human will ever accept and love her for who she is. Her brief and tender interactions with Max are really her first true connection with any individual outside of her immediate family.
Witherspoon, who also produced the film, also instantly accepts her new friend that she playfully nicknames, “scarfy,” because of her strange appearance. McAvoy is also solid as the romantic lead in a role totally different from his work in earlier films, “Becoming Jane” and “The Last King of Scotland.” A tad long and featuring a simplistic message of “love yourself,” “Penelope” has enough charm to overcome any of its meager deficiencies. Exuding innocent sex appeal, Ricci is a cute little “babe” and the best reason to see this film.