A modern fairy tale

BY SARAH SCHWARTZ
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 10, 2008

What exactly is a fairy tale movie? Images of Disney princesses and white knights come to mind, but movies like those childhood staples don't exist anymore. And in today's world, it's hard to blend together the right mix of individualism, cynicism and happily-ever-after into a truly winning "modern fairy tale." "Penelope" comes close, but when the genre is still being defined, it still shows some holes and cracks.

Cursed with a pig's snout and locked up to avoid the inevitable finger-pointing and ridicule, Penelope's (Christina Ricci, "Black Snake Moan") only hope to lead a normal life is to find someone "of her own kind" to love and marry. Penelope's mother, (Barbara O'Hara, "For Your Consideration") tries to set her up with blue bloods and rich men, all of whom flee the room after first seeing her. That is until Max (James McAvoy, "Atonement") appears.

Max, in order to be the typical, modern-day Prince Charming, has his own problems, namely a gambling habit. His need for money leads him to Lemon (Peter Dinklage, "Elf"), a reporter hoping to make it big with Penelope's picture. Betrayed, Penelope flees her house and comes, of course, into her own.

Discovering new places and people is a key element to all fairy tales, and Penelope does it on the streets of the big city. She explores circuses, zoos and aquariums - all the exciting sights of a new city without the dirt underneath. "Penelope" uses a combination of London streets and New York skyscrapers elements to create an unfamiliar and whimsical world. The fact that the cast is a mix of British and Americans helps the film, as does McAvoy's impressive, though unnecessary, American accent.

"Penelope" does well mixing the fantasy and the real, but cannot overcome its own basic flaws. Ricci's Penelope is not monster enough to scare anyone away, nor is she whimsically light enough to really have fun with the part. Even O'Hara, a comedic genius, falls flat when she's forced to take on the role of the "wicked mother," and because she's trying to protect Penelope from the cruelty of the world, she ends up also stifling Penelope's spirit. And then, like "Beauty and the Beast" before it, there is the underlying complication: If a person loves you just the way you are, what happens when what made you extraordinary disappears once the curse is lifted?

The movie's themes of self-image and self-love are important and to the point, as is the need to stay true to oneself. In these regards, the movie does well in keeping the cloying until the very last scene. It is here that children sit around and guess the moral of the fairy tale. Yes, all stories have a lesson to be learned, but never has there been a need to spell it out, just in case the audience missed it. It is an unnecessary ending, taking away from the vibrancy of the movie and a really good kiss that ended the previous scene.

Like "Enchanted" before it, "Penelope" has the usual fairy tale elements, but the need to make the formula more realistic comes into play. Girls cannot be purely rescued; boys can't be truly perfect; happily-ever-after can't be a given - these changes are all accepted at face value today. So Penelope does some of her own rescuing, Max finds his way back to himself and the "happily-ever-after" becomes a "so far, so good." It's a little sad, completely expected and becoming an accepted genre - welcome to the "modern fairytale."

Penelope

Rating:2.5 out of 5 stars

At Showcase and Quality 16

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