This modern-day fable has fanciful appeal to it, top-lined by a guileless, waif-like Christina Ricci (far from Black Snake Moan). It's finally getting dusted off the cinematic shelf for Western audiences before moving quickly to ancillary markets.
Ricci's titular character has led a sheltered life to say the least (because of a porcine snout) and her parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant) want their sensitive daughter (with quite a dowry) to be rid of a mysterious family curse.
The stop-and-go spry scripting figures on the conflict of having her married off to one of her kind (class distinction goes a long way here). Is there a suitor who'll get over her nose? It works on a diligent reporter (Peter Dinklage of Death at a Funeral) trying to get a picture of the protected heiress while retaining a purported loony of an ex-suitor (Simon Woods). A better chance might be the handsome, gambling-addled Max (James McAvoy, very good in Atonement).
While the story hardly ever finds its rhythm, within a familiar element of romantic comedy, a perkiness keeps it all from getting too bogged down, as finally a silliness overwhelms what could have been a mawkish familial finish.
Ricci, who dons a scarf often to good use, is especially good opposite a disheveled, if congenial McAvoy. The addled Grant, and dementedly imperious O'Hara provide much needed humor, along with some of the line readings and warped exchanges. Reese Witherspoon (here a producer) pops up for a bit as a messenger for our cautious heroine.
The quirkiness for some may be in the conflagration of accents, from British, American, and mid-Atlantic as the production (shot in London) offers much of a lush, detailed quality in terms of set design, lensing, and costumes. Unhappily, it may call attention to itself rather than rendering a beguiling, intriguing sense of place and mood.
Still, if Penelope is hardly magical as it builds on its motif of self-acceptance and looks difficult to attract an audience, there is an ebullience that catches into spirit of similar genre pics like Shrek, Ella Enchanted and The Princess Bride. As contrived as it may feel, a colorful, snappy texture affably supports a parable where the wealthy really aren't the upper class.