It's not Penelope's fault she's ... deformed. It's her great-great-grandfather's. He's the aristocrat who forsook the servant girl he loved for a more socially acceptable marriage. To spite him, the girl's mother (a witch) cursed his family, vowing that the first girl born to the Wilhern clan would have the face of a pig. The curse would only be broken when "one of her own kind" saw fit to love her for who she was. Forever.
Unfortunately for Penelope, the Wilherns proceeded to produce a lot of boys—generations of them. Four branches up on the family tree, as the calendar rolls toward the 21st century, Penelope herself arrives and fulfills the old hag's vengeful promise.
Her mother is so taken aback by her daughter's visage that she fakes the infant's death and locks Penelope in her room. There she grows for 18 years, educated and entertained, but totally solitary. When she reaches marrying age, Mom takes the reins again and hires a matchmaker to entice the eligible blue bloods of the city with a sizeable dowry. The bachelors are intrigued ... until they see Penelope, whose face makes them want to jump out of a window. (More than one actually does so.)
Practical and stalwart, Penelope has all but given up hope of marrying. And then Max comes along. Though he's startled by her appearance, he doesn't hightail it out the door or window as all the others have. A tender, tentative friendship begins to grow between them. But just as Penelope is beginning to have hope, Max disappears. It seems there's more to both of them than meets the eye.
As is obvious from the movie trailers, this is the story of Penelope learning to like herself, even though others are appalled by her appearance. Cautiously at first, and then boldly, she breaks out of her sheltered existence and explores the world with waning care for others' opinions about her face. She even manages to shake off her mother's criticism-masquerading-as-concern, which lays like a wet blanket over her whole life.
By the time she meets Max, she's growing comfortable with herself, though the constant rejection of her peers is still painful to her. He loves her—and we love her too—not for her face, but for her honest conversation, her superiority in chess, her spunk, and her love of books and horticulture. The pinnacle of the movie is the moment where Penelope shouts, in defiance of her mother and the rest of the world, "I like myself the way I am!"
Though Max initially has selfish reasons for visiting Penelope (he's being bribed by Mr. Lemon, a reporter, to capture a photo of her), he soon repents of his trickery. He returns the money and continues to pursue Penelope with pure intentions. Also, inspired by Penelope's boldness in leaving the safety of her bedroom, Max makes up his mind to move to a new town and leave his out-of-control gambling habit behind (not to mention the stealing habit that supports the gambling habit).
Even Lemon eventually thinks better of his attempt to exploit Penelope and decides to respect the girl's privacy. And Jessica Wilhern has a shining moment in which she admits that her obsession with her daughter's looks has made her a very poor parent. Later, she goes right back to her old ways, but her vanity is played in such a way that audiences know she's not a model to be emulated.
There are other positive messages scattered throughout the film as well. For example, Penelope doesn't explore the concept of marriage very thoroughly, but the simple repetition of the phrase "till death do [us] part" ends up emphasizing the importance of permanence in marriage. Though Franklin Wilhern is sort of spineless, he does keep a better perspective on his daughter's situation than his wife does. He wonders aloud whether it would be kinder to Penelope to begin preparing her to live her whole life under her curse than to keep raising her hopes about marriage.
The curse on which the story's drama turns feels a lot like the charm maliciously placed on Sleeping Beauty. It's a spell, spoken over a baby, the effects of which aren't felt for years. In addition to that curse, we learn that one character has been living for years under a magical disguise. That character casts a curse on another character.
During a wedding ceremony, traditional Christian vows are used. "God bless him" is spoken once. And a flippant line references angels.
A winking reference is made to a baby girl who wasn't affected by the Wilhern curse because she wasn't actually the daughter of a Wilhern, as everyone supposed, but of an employee in the Wilhern household. A suitor who seeks to marry Penelope for political gain repeatedly mentions how disgusted he is by the thought of kissing her. Max isn't, though; he and Penelope kiss passionately. A veiled-but-crude reference is made to male arousal.
Penelope once threatens (or, more accurately, promises) to commit suicide if her curse can't be broken. Jessica hits Lemon with a stick and pokes his eye out when he tries to exploit Penelope. (He wears an eye patch for the rest of the film.) His face is also the victim of an accidental run-in with a swinging van door. (Yes, the film is set in modern times.) Young bachelors are shown jumping out of a second-story window—shattering the glass and falling to the ground. (None of them seem to be injured by their leap.) In a confrontation, Max grabs another young man by the jaw to get his attention.
Crude or Profane Language
Two uses each of "h---" and "d---." God's name is misused once and "so help me God" is spoken somewhat flippantly. Other not-so-nice words include "freakin'" and "pee."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Max repeatedly gambles in a bar. He drinks, and he invites Penelope to visit the pub with him, telling her she's got to try beer on tap. Predictably, when she breaks out of her private prison and goes out on the town, Penelope heads straight for the bar and orders a beer on tap. She ends up downing five beers and is quite drunk by the time she meets her new best friend Annie, who also drinks.
Other Negative Elements
Boys who bolt at the sight of Penelope are systematically strong-armed into signing a gag order so they don't reveal her defect to other potential husbands. Since she's 25, Penelope's escape from the house can't exactly be viewed as an act of disobedience or rebellion. She even calls her parents to tell them she loves them. Still, she does steal her mother's credit card to finance her flight.
An unfortunate reference is made to fat girls being pig-like.
If Sydney White was a lot of modern life and a little bit of fairy tale, Penelope is just the opposite. The production feels so much like an old-fashioned children's fantasy that modern conveniences such as credit cards feel out of place. This film deals in aristocrats, mansions and curse-casting hags. The nursery where Penelope spent her childhood is a perfect fairy-tale world. And if Max is a little more Mr. Tumnus than handsome prince, he sure has honor fit for royalty.
But Penelope's crown is its heroine. She serves as a beacon for any young woman who struggles with self-worth. Producer and actress Reese Witherspoon takes a motherly attitude toward her young female audience: "I'm always very aware that I'm a mother first. And it's important to me to find films to support that have positive female role models in them."
She has certainly succeeded on that account.
Unfortunately, Penelope's face isn't completely blemish-free. A few inappropriate words, a spell or two and some unapologetic drinking are definite concerns for parents who'd like to expose their young ladies to an otherwise positive (and fun!) story. OK, I thought it was fun. But this film may end up being a bit of a Rorschach test from an aesthetic perspective. A colleague who also saw it before it hit theaters thought it was just plain unrealistic and even "unsettling" at times. He couldn't wait for it to end.
The idea of learning to like oneself is an important one in a culture devoted to the worship of glamour, glitz and size-0 miniskirts. All of us are tempted to find our identity in what others think of us. But here's the thing: It's not the most important lesson. Penelope makes self-esteem out to be the end-all, be-all moral. Christian parents who decide to engage this subject with this film can certainly do one better by using the opportunity to teach young women about finding their identity in Christ—not just in self-acceptance.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Christina Ricci as Penelope Wilhern; Catherine O'Hara as Jessica Wilhern; Richard E. Grant as Franklin Wilhern; James McAvoy as Max; Reese Witherspoon as Annie; Peter Dinklage as Mr. Lemon; Simon Woods as Edward Vanderman Jr.
Mark Palansky ( )