It’s a sure sign that a movie’s been gathering dust when the press notes describe James McAvoy as “just breaking out in his career”. Lensed before the now-ubiquitous Scot made Becoming Jane or Atonement, Penelope has been sat on the shelf for a couple of years.
Why the jitters? Undeniably cute, it certainly isn’t a hard sell – especially as it arrives in the wake of the frothy, magical Enchanted. The title character is a girl born with pig’s nose and ears due to a family curse. Played by Christina Ricci with dark eyes and fake snout, she can’t attract the chap ‘of her own kind’ that she needs to break the spell. Frantic, her parents (Richard E Grant, Catherine O’Hara) offer a huge dowry tempered with a gagging order – in the hope of both keeping their porcine princess a secret and restoring her looks. A host of potential suitors prove unimpressed…
Enter a wily wee reporter (Peter Dinklage), smelling a big story. Penniless gambler Max (McAvoy with a Yank drawl) is swiftly hired for the job of seducing the lovelorn porker and getting a front-page photo of her hooter. Romance, naturally, ensues.
Penelope is hardly revolutionary. But it isn’t without charm, thanks mainly to Ricci and McAvoy, who generate plenty of warm-gooeys with little more than expressive peepers (her) and well-judged tears (him). First-time director Mark Palansky creates a Tim Burton-lite Anywheresville with primary colours, inventive sets and Big Fish-style whimsy (even if his conceit of having everyone do different accents is distracting). Swirling camera moves and Moulin Rouge-style heightened realism keep things at a jolly pace, making for a brisk dollop of cinematic candyfloss that will appal the cynics.
But despite a laboured ‘love thyself’ message, the worst you can say about Penelope is that it’s unashamedly winsome – an innocuous, easy-viewing film with thoroughly good intentions. It’s no silk purse – but no sow’s ear either.
Derivative and slight enough to make the marketing suits nervous - - but sufficiently starry and sweet-cured to bring home the bacon. If you take your fables with a pinch of sugar, then trotter-long to see it.