Penelope has ostensibly only one actual fantasy element, though this propels the plot – the Wilherns, an old and rich British family, has been cursed so that the daughter born to the line will have the face of a pig, a curse that can only be broken when this daughter is embraced “by her own kind.” Enter Penelope (Christina Ricci), born with a pig’s snout and ears, but otherwise actually quite cute. This, however, is enough to make Penelope’s mother Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) keep Penelope locked away from the world in the Wilhern mansion, until the day that marriage to a rich peer will presumably break the curse.
As Penelope’s suitors not only don’t pop the question but tend to run screaming straight out the window at the sight of her, it doesn’t seem that this is likely to happen – until Max (James McAvoy), a down-on-his-luck gambler, agrees to accept cash to surreptitiously take a picture of Penelope. As he and Penelope aren’t immediately in the same room together (long story), they have a chance to get to know one another and fall for each other. Then Max sees Penelope but, for reasons we learn later, he feels he must not pursue the relationship. Penelope is heartbroken, but finally decides to take matters into her own hands.
It would seem there are all the elements here for a charming fable, but Leslie Caveny’s script wants to have it every which way. That young men almost uniformly run from Penelope is meant to be a gag, but it seems very strange – we wait for some sort of metaphor that never quite comes. The story shifts back and forth so many times that the “be yourself” message winds up with the potential translation, “Accept yourself and with any luck, you’ll be something better,” which isn’t truly about self-acceptance after all. It also seems bizarre and unnecessary that most of the leads playing English characters – including Ricci, McAvoy and Richard E. Grant as Penelope’s loving but harried father – all speak with American accents. Simon Woods as the snooty young man who despises Penelope but must court her anyway, and Nigel Havers, as his firm-handed father, both speak with English accents, which makes the contrast all the odder.
This said, Ricci and McAvoy are delightful individually and as a chemistry-generating pair, with producer Reese Witherspoon appealing as Penelope’s agreeable new friend and Peter Dinklage providing some notes of sanity as a newsman curious about Penelope’s appearance.
Director Mark Palansky tends to punch the comedy a little harder than he needs to most of the time, but creates some likable moments when Penelope and Max are getting to know one another/showing off for each other. The upshot is a movie that works as a love story, if not as a morale-building fable for the less presentable among us.