Penelope

Summit, Opens February 29

Toronto Film Fest 2006–Mark Palansky makes a disappointing feature directorial debut with “Penelope,” a failed effort to blend old and new-style fairy tales about the inspirational journey of a young girl (well cast with Christina Ricci), a mysterious family secret, and the eternal power of love.

Technically, there's much to admire about the film's inventive production design, colorful costumes, and vibrant visuals that almost help (but not quite) to conceal the slender, overly familiar saga at its center.

To be sure, Palansky is not the first artist to try to update or bring fresh eye to old popular tales. You may recall Bob Reiner's “The Princess Bride,” a more successful accomplishment, and more recently “Ella Enchanted,” and the Amy Adams' star vehicle “Enchanted,” which combined effectively live action and animation, old and new world.

Drawing on various sources, Palansky, who comes from shorts, seems to have watched closely the oeuvre of Tim Burton, specifically his early work (“Beetlejuice, “Edward Scissorhands), as he throws into his mix motifs and images from Burton's work as well as such popular animations as the “Shrek” franchise. End result is a work that's incoherent in both the positive and negative aspects of the term.

In this modern-day romantic tale, with all the odds placed against her, Penelope can only break the family curse if she must find someone who loves her truly and faithfully. The ensuing adventure, which is occasionally warm, intermittently funny, leads Penelope to realize her most important life lesson, I like myself the way I am, which is precisely the message propagated by the “Shrek” movies, among recent reincarnations.

Born to wealthy socialite parents (Catherine OHara and Richard E. Grant), Penelope has been afflicted by the Wilhern spell that can only be broken with love. You may ask, where the curse comes from In the mid-nineteenth century, a witch placed a curse upon the Wilhern name as revenge against the family' denial of marriage between Ralph Wilhern and a common servant girl. The witch then proclaimed that the first-born daughter to the Wilhern line shall be cursed with the face of a pig. There's only one remedy to remove the curse, not until daughter finds a suitor to love her–sort of Till death do they part”–will the curse be broken.

The devastated and humiliated parents go to great lengths to protect Penelope from scrutiny. Faking her death, they keep their daughter hidden within the gates of their estate. Penelope's overbearing mother, convinced that she can break the curse, then devises a plan to find Penelope a blue-blooded suitor who's willing to overlook her grotesque appearance.

Domineering mom goes so far as to implement a system of forcing Penelope's gentlemen-callers to sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect her true identity, even if nothing can keep this secret safe. While most suitors end up running, while screaming in horror, jumping through windows and fleeing the property, one of them manages to tell the world “the horror” he has seen.

When Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods), the son of a wealthy businessman, desperately confesses everything to the police, he winds up on the cover of a local tabloid, and is ridiculed for his outlandish claims.

However, it just so happens that a disgruntled reporter, Lemon (Peter Dinklage), not only believes Vanderman's testimony but has also waited for twenty-five years to get the scoop on the Wilhern legend. As a result, Lemon agrees to help Vanderman clear his name. They figure that “all” they have to do is find a regular blue-blooded bachelor to hatch their scheme. But how do you find a blue blood short on cash

The real fun begins when a line of eligible bachelors show fascination with Penelope-or more precisely with her considerable dowry-until the moment when her curse is revealed.

Enter Max Campion (James McAvoy), a charming young aristocrat and avid gambler down on his luck. Pursuing the girl, with each passing day, Max gains Penelope's confidence. Believing it is her last chance to find happiness, she unveils herself, giving Max the opportunity he needs to cash in on his reward.

The choice appears to be his, but it's not as easy as it seems. Thus, Max decides to disappear, not wanting to disappoint Penelope, or to expose his surreptitious ways.

As Penelope searches for love, she soon discovers that things are not always as they seem. That what she's been looking for all along may be closer to home than she ever imagined.

In the film's second part, fed up by the latest betrayal, and determined to live life on her own terms, Penelope breaks free from her family and ventures into the world alone. Along the way, she meets Annie, her first true friend (Reese Witherspoon, who's also credited as producer) and ultimately becomes the person she was always meant to be.

“Penelope” is based on an original screenplay from writer Leslie Caveny, who comes from TV (“Everybody Loves Raymond,” among others). His origins show: Many scenes are short and end with a punch line.

Palansky, whose previous work includes the award-winning shorts “Shutter” and “The Same,” shows hard time and sweat in building momentum and continuity to his fractured saga. In the end, the best thing to be said and enjoyed about “Penelope” is the film's glorious cast, both lead and supporting.

Cast

Penelope Wilhern – Christina Ricci
Johnny/Max – James McAvoy
Jessica Wilhern – Catherine O'Hara
Lemon – Peter Dinklage
Franklin Wilhern – Richard E. Grant
Annie – Reese Witherspoon
Edward Vanderman – Simon Woods
Wanda – Ronni Ancona
Jake/Witch – Michael Feast
Mr. Vanderman – Nigel Havers
Krull – Lenny Henry
Mrs. Vanderman – Christina Greatrex

Credits

A Stone Village Prods. Presentation of a Type A Films, Tatira Active production in association with Grosvenor Park Media.
Produced by Reese Witherspoon, Scott Steindorff, Jennifer Simpson.
Executive producers: Robin Greenspun, Danny Greenspun, Andrew Molasky, Chris Curling, Christian Arnold-Beutel, Dylan Russell, Michael Roban.
Co-producers: Leslie Caveny, Phil Robertson. Directed by Mark Palansky.
Screenplay, Leslie Caveny.
Camera: Michel Amathieu.
Editor: Jon Gregory.
Music: Joby Talbot.
Production designer: Amanda McArthur.
Supervising art director, John Reid.
Art director: Gerard Bryan.
Set decorator: Bridget Menzies.
Costume designer: Jill Taylor.
Sound: Martin Trevis.
Sound designer: Matthew Collinge.
Prosthetics supervisor: Scott Stoddard.
Visual effects supervisor: Jody Johnson.

Running time: 103 Minutes.