Penelope is a charming but fluffy little fable about a girl born under the shadow of a family curse. Penelope's wealthy ancestor five generations back got on the bad side of a witch, and the witch smacked back with a curse that the next female child born to the family would have the face of a pig -- a curse that can be broken only when someone from her own class learns to love her for who she is. Unfortunately for Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci), the next female Wilhern child was her.
Rather than face the scrutiny of the public and media, Penelope's very rich parents fake their newborn daughter's death and retreat to live in a mansion in isolation. And thus, Penelope is raised in her gilded cage, given every imaginable advantage -- except freedom. She is a prisoner in her own home, not even allowed outside to play. Once Penelope is old enough, her parents hire a matchmaker and put a sizable dowry on their daughter in order to find her a blue-blooded suitor who will look past her snout and marry her. Trouble is, once they get a look at Penelope, the candidates head for the hills -- or out the nearest window.
Eventually Penelope gets tired of the rejection and of being kept in isolation in her own home, and runs away to see what the real world is like. So long as she keeps her snout hidden under a scarf, all is well. For the first time, Penelope gets to experience life: cotton candy, beer on tap, and friends, including Annie (Reese Witherspoon), a fast-talking, rough-and-tumble,Vespa-riding delivery driver who shows Penelope the ways of the world. When Penelope's face is accidentally revealed to the world, though, she must decide whether to finally face the world as she is.
The plot is a bit transparent and one-noted. You can pretty much predict from the time James McAvoy appears on screen how things are likely to turn out in the end -- there are no real surprises or plot twists. Visually, the film is lovely; saturated colors give the film a fairy-tale glow, and the set design suits the mood of the film. There are some strong performances to bolster the film as well: Ricci turns in an excellent performance as Penelope, capturing the heartache of a girl who nobody -- not even her own mother -- loves for who she is. Catherine O'Hara is tragically funny as Penelope's mother, who wishes so hard for her daughter to be normal, that she quite overlooks the lovely girl in front of her. Witherspoon, in her small role (she also produced the film) makes you sit up and pay attention every time she's on screen, lest you miss anything. And Peter Dinklage, as a reporter out to finally reveal the truth about Penelope, is heartfelt as a man with his own physical differences pursuing a young woman rumored to be a freak of nature.
Penelope is a sweet, well-intentioned film, and it certainly appealed to the festival crowd I saw it with, but I'm just not sure after watching it, who exactly its audience is. With its relatively simple, straightforward story, it feels like a children's fairy tale and could have been a cute movie targeted at the older kids' market a la Ever After, and maybe that will turn out to be the film's sweet spot. It feels more like it's aimed at adults somehow, though; a colleague described it as "Tim Burton Lite," and that's a pretty apt description. It's not quite dark enough to really satisfy the adults who are drawn to Burton's particular brand of quirkiness, and it doesn't have the darker humor that Witherspoon herself brought to her Little Red Riding hood update Freeway ten years ago. Penelope's heart is in the right place, and it's a cute story with some funny moments, but watching it was a bit like eating Chinese food; I felt moderately full as the credits rolled, but once out in the bright sunlight, the film faded from my consciousness and I was hungry for another film with a little more substance.