In “Penelope’s” whirlwind pre-title sequence, Mark Palansky establishes a confident narrative grasp and eccentric visual style, creating a richly imagined canvas that blends old worlds and new. The first-time director quickly sketches the title character’s backstory: The daughter of blueblood socialites, she was born with the snout of a pig, the result of an ancient family curse. The whimsical ugly-duckling fable becomes more uneven as it proceeds, straining too hard to manufacture its quirky charms. But its message of self-acceptance might connect with tween girls daunted by unpretty adolescence.
Produced through her Type A banner by Reese Witherspoon (who also appears in a small role late in the action), the film embroiders the real London into a fantasy realm and fudges national identity with a muddle of American, British and mid-Atlantic accents.
Working with a vibrant color palette, production designer Amanda McArthur and energetic lenser Michel Amathieu fold together old city landmarks and stately streets with a sleek modern skyscape, juggling splendor with grime, fairy-tale quaintness with 21st-century style.
Jill Taylor’s costumes, full of telling character detail, and Joby Talbot’s lush score add to the attractive package. If the storytelling assurance falters, the production certainly earns points for ambition.
Echoing McArthur’s frequent splashes of Tim Burton-influenced grotesquerie, Palansky and screenwriter Leslie Caveny draw on everything from “Beetlejuice” to “Edward Scissorhands” to “Big Fish” while dipping into the same well of fairy-tale updates that yielded pics like “Shrek,” “The Princess Bride” and “Ella Enchanted.” The result is sweet but less than beguiling.
Hidden from a world of prying tabloids by her overbearing mother (Catherine O’Hara) and addled father (Richard E. Grant), Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci) believes the curse can be broken only if she marries one of her own kind — interpreted here as a class distinction. A long line of society suitors is assembled, but one look at her porcine shnozz makes them all bolt. Fact that Ricci’s Penelope is not nearly hideous enough to justify their horrified exits (flinging themselves from an upstairs manor window) is the script’s first stumbling block.
Among those making a hasty retreat is big-business scion Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods), whose claims of a Miss Piggy encounter get him branded a loony.
The poorly developed central conflict revolves around Edward’s attempt to prove his sanity by exposing Penelope’s existence. He teams with reporter Lemon (Peter Dinklage), who has his own grudge against the Wilherns.
They enlist Max (James McAvoy), whom they believe to be a dissolute rich boy plagued by gambling debts, to woo Penelope. Max’s unexpected feelings for Penelope complicate the plan, as does her bid for independence.
Softening her brittle edges with innocence, Ricci’s disarming mix of light and dark, guilelessness and pluck give the fanciful script more grounding than it might otherwise have had. She’s especially good when she seizes her freedom, wrapping a scarf around her disfiguring nose and venturing forth like a veiled woman into the intimidating city streets. (The Muslim East meeting the West? Probably not.)
McAvoy also registers winningly with his affable, disheveled charm, even if the fable’s romantic angle is a stop-start component.
While performance styles are too erratic in tone, O’Hara’s demented timing adds comic flavor, as does the always distinctive Dinklage. Witherspoon plays a Vespa-riding free spirit who befriends the newly emancipated Penelope; the actress is a spunky presence, but her role is inconsequential.
Closer to studio fare than indie fodder, the film could use some tightening of its sluggish midsection before further exposure.