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Penelope’ a tale of hope

By Rachel Adams

“Penelope”Stone Village PicturesWritten by Leslie CavenyDirected by Mark Palansky

Starring Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O’Hara, Reese Witherspoon and Peter DinklageRated PG/102 minutesThree out of four stars

We live in an age of cynicism and disbelief. We have to. We have information coming at us from all sides. If we didn’t filter, we would be lost. If we didn’t scoff, we would look like fools most of the time. However, we also live in an age of hope. Just look at the nomination campaigns for those in the Democratic Party. “Hope” has become our national tagline. With this dual atmosphere of doubt and hope, the time is ripe for a smart, modern day fairy tale. After all, we haven’t had a good one since “Shrek.”

“Penelope” tells the story of a girl (Christina Ricci) with a pig nose who has learned to deal with her personal reality: people scream and jump out of windows at the sight of her. Her mother (Catherine O’Hara) is one of those well-meaning parents who tries to protect her child from reality and ends up hurting her more in the process. She keeps Penelope under house arrest and exposes her to a perpetual stream of suitors in hopes that one of them will break the curse by proposing to Penelope despite the defect. Unfortunately, even a hefty dowry has failed to keep a single one of them in the room long enough to see past the end of Penelope’s nose.

Until Max (James McAvoy) comes along. Max is a down-on-his-luck blue blood (the curse requires one of Penelope’s own kind to break the spell) who spends his time gambling and drinking until Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a reporter with a vendetta, recruits him to snap a picture of the reclusive pig-girl. You can only guess what happens after that-but you’ll probably be wrong.

“Penelope” touts itself as “A fairy tale like no other.” I’ll agree, but only because it doesn’t perpetuate that unfortunate myth of the knight in shining armor who comes along and saves the damsel in distress. “Penelope” is the story of the damsel in distress saving herself when she realizes that the knight just isn’t coming. It’s about finding ourselves before we try to find someone else-solving our own problems and being a whole person instead of one-half of an “us.”

This important lesson for our day is wrapped, as a good fairy tale should be, in a pleasant package. The special effects are wonderful, as they tend to be these days. The setting is lovely, the cinematography grand, except for one thing: the story takes place in a large, ostensibly British city (where else would you find so many blue-bloods bashing around?) with about an equal number of British and American accents in any given scenario. It’s set in the past-present? Past? In a world in which magic exists-or maybe there’s just Penelope’s curse. Or magic is common. Or it isn’t? OK, so the ambiguity was annoying.

First-time feature film director Mark Palansky could have spent at least some time laying out the rules for the world of “Penelope.” One man’s universality is another man’s pure laziness.

Writer Leslie Caveny previously wrote for sitcoms, including “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and the movie reflects that at times. It feels less unified and fluid than a feature-length film ought to and some of the dialog is flippant and throw-away, but for the most part it is a shining first effort. Ricci, who generally takes interesting roles (“Black Snake Moan,” anyone?) clearly knew what her role meant, and the movie rides on her wide-eyed, independent and lovable performance. Dinklage, who deserves more size-blind parts, gave an excellent turn, transforming what could have been a forgettable role into one of the most enjoyable characters in the movie. O’Hara overdid things a bit (but that might be the fault of the script), McAvoy was-I’ll admit-a bit of a bore, and Reese Witherspoon appears in a bit part that can only be explained by the fact that she produced the movie.

Humorous, candid and light-hearted, “Penelope” focuses on the resourcefulness of the survivor, not the pain of the outcast. In doing so it leaves the viewer with more than a good feeling-it leaves us with hope that, no matter our obstacles, we are not the pawns of fate. We can choose a happy ending for ourselves.

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