I can’t imagine it would surprise any remotely regular readers of this blog to learn that among the genres that I love, the reinterpreted fairy tale is high up there. It may be that I was a young teenager when Ever After and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet came out, or that I was lucky enough to grow up with Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest novels. But the riff on the fairy story, the girl who goes into the woods, or the big city, and comes out transformed, is one of my favorite types of books to read or movies to watch. It’s for that reason that Penelope, the first movie out of Reese Witherspoon’s production company, starring Christina Ricci as a girl born with a pig’s nose who is secluded by her parents who hope to marry her off to break the curse that gave her the nose in the first place, has long been on my list of things to catch up on that I missed*.
It’s certainly not a great movie. There are too many Big Speeches and Fortuitous Metaphors. The first part of the movie is desperately twee, though it gets points back for being a fairy tale. Reese Witherspoon shows up as a somewhat unfortunate Deus Ex Machina with funky hair in a role that feels more like an attempt to add a little edge to her career than to play any actual logical role in the movie. The Big Woods, in this case, the Big City, is a little too quick to warm up to Penelope; there aren’t enough real obstacles in her path. The paparazzi metaphor is a little dopey and a little obvious. As is the magical ending.
That said, there’s a lot that’s extremely charming about it. Christina Ricci’s big eyes are perfect for expressing the wonder of someone who’s seeing a fountain, or a street vendor for the first time. The rest of the cast is chock full of fine British actors including James McAvoy towards the end of his wan and dissolute period; Michael Feast, so cutting and perceptive as Andrew Wilson, the Cabinet flack in State of Play; Russell Brand in one of those small roles he had before he got pyrotechnically famous over here in the States; and Nick Frost showing up in a twist part. Then, of course, there’s Peter Dinklage.
But honestly, what I liked best about the movie is that even though it’s a fairy tale, the movie treats the lovers it portrays like actual adults when it counts. One of the ways McAvoy’s character points out Ricci’s isolation to her is to extoll the virtues of draft beer, which she’s never had. When she gets out in the world, it’s one of the first things she goes after, but drinking beer is just something she does, it’s not used as a signifier that she’s some kind of frattish good-time girl. They flirt over books, and chess, and the most hilarious rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” outside of the several that appear Primary Colors. They are real people getting to know each other, even though they live in a fairy tale.
*Since I got my new Blu-Ray player, I’ve been streaming things on Netflix like crazy in an effort to make up for some huge gaps in my movie- and television-watching history. If you have recommendations for classics I might not have seen that are Netflix-streamable, please let me know in comments or by email.