Movie Review: Penelope

I adore this PG family friendly movie, which just returned to Netflix. Loosely based on The Ugly Duckling it’s a story about love and acceptance. Christina Ricci stars as Penelope, a high society princess kept locked away in her tower because an old family curse had her born with a pig’s snout and ears. Her mother, played to absolute perfection by comedy veteran Catherine O’Hara, is determined to hide this secret until the curse can be broken when “one of her own kind”agrees to love her, til death do they part. Richard E. Grant plays her father, quieter and with more guilt because it was his family’s curse. 

Penelope has grown up locked away in her rooms, preparing for the day a man would marry her and break the curse. She plays piano, speaks French, and is an avid horticulturist but her only companions are her parents and their butler. When she turned 18 her mother hired a matchmaker for the rich and famous to find her a blue blood man to marry. The movie picks up after seven years of constant painful rejections. 

The most recent rejection comes from Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods), a snobbish aristocrat so disgusted by the sight of her he ran straight to the police station to report a hideous beast. Everyone laughs at him but one man. Peter Dinklage plays a reporter named Lemon determined to get a picture of the pig faced girl. The two decide to recruit a down and out blue blood to gain entry to the house, posing as a suitor, to snap a picture of the beast 

The young shaggy haired gambler they entice to do the job Max (James McAvoy) falls for Penelope, snout and all. He destroys the camera and picture, and urges his conspirators to leave her alone. But as she promises to kill herself if the curse doesn’t break upon their wedding as way of marriage proposal, he refuses her too. Unwilling to face further heartache, and knowing her mother will never stop trying to break the curse, Penelope sets out on her own. 

She makes friends with a Vespa riding not-quite bad girl played by lead producer Reese Witherspoon. She tries beer on tap, goes to a street festival, and experiences life outside her room, all while wearing a scarf across her face. She collects the cash reward for a picture of herself, and convicts Lemon in the process. He asks why she’s doing it and she shoots back, “What do you care? You got your freak.” Visibly different Peter Dinklage is able to convey more sympathy and pathos than an average height apparently abled actor could in that moment. 

Edward meanwhile has continued to speak ill of Penelope, even as the public has embraced her. “That thing should be in a cage,” he says. His father, CEO of a publicly traded company, coerces him to marry Penelope to fix the public relations damage Edward has caused. Penelope’s mother is eager for the union, convinced it will break the curse. Two very unhappy young people start the wedding ceremony. Now comes the plot spoilers. 

Lemon, determined to now do right by Penelope, realizes blue blood Max is really Johnny, the aristocratic son of a tradesman. He only refused Penelope because he couldn’t break the curse and loved her too much to ruin her only chance at happiness. Inspired by Penelope’s bravery in facing the world as herself, he’s quit gambling and returned to healthier pursuits like piano playing. Lemon brings the information to Penelope’s mother just before the wedding. She doesn’t tell her daughter, still convinced this is the only way to banish her daughter’s snout. 

Penelope walks down the aisle, then runs the other direction. To the groom’s utter delight she doesn’t want to go through with it. Her mother pleads, this is how we get a whole new you. Penelope declares, “I like myself the way I am!” And with that, the curse is broken. Her prosthetic pig nose and ears are replaced with the actress’ real ones. Her mother cries, realizing she’d had the power to break her daughter’s curse all along. All she had to do was accept her as she was. 

Johnny and Penelope meet up again for the first time on Halloween. Penelope snout masks are the hit costume that year, and Johnny declares his love for Penelope and kisses her as she’s wearing one, before seeing her new smaller features underneath. He loves her as she is no matter what her nose looks like. They can now love freely with no curses or mistaken identities between. 

This is a sweet movie with a good message, appropriate for children but enjoyable for all ages. The top knotch casting and clever writing elevate what could be a ho hum romance into something special. Some well concealed innuendo should keep parents watching this with their kids trying to conceal guffaws. It’s feel good fun. 

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