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Penelope is Charming, Modern

Observer Scene | Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lose the prince charming of yore, forget the control top pantyhose, and ignore the Spice Girls’ suggestion of “strength and courage in a wonder bra.” While all of these may have been good options for ego boosting and self-image enhancers, Christina Ricci’s new film offers a novel take on the modern girl’s sense of fulfillment. Self-empowerment beyond body image is in, thanks to “Penelope.”

For centuries, little girls, young females and grown women alike have looked to film for fairytale romance and ideal beauty. “Penelope” flies in the face of this delusion of perfection, giving this fairytale’s damsel a very real problem. Okay, maybe not so real.

Penelope has the standard troubles of many girls: poor body image, a nagging mother and boys. Her dilemma over her body image extends past the typical discomfort over chubby thighs or a flat chest. The victim of a family curse, Penelope has the face of a pig. And no, this isn’t some drunken insult uttered by a sexually frustrated frat boy. The phrase “pig face” is a quite literal description.

A pig-nose and floppy ears are definitely not ideal mating material. But the only way to break the curse is to marry Penelope off to an aristocratic young man. Her parents, however, decide to lock her up away from public ridicule. Meanwhile her mother is obsessed with breaking the curse, and pursues the altar with a vengeance. Of course, this quest is marked by every mother’s standby of overbearing nagging.

And finally, Penelope’s “boy problems.” Nearly all of her suitors run away at first sight of her, so a second date is typically out of question. Eventually Penelope does find the right guy (James McAvoy), and the standard fare of heartache and redemption ensue. The angst leads Penelope to flee from her isolation and allows her to discover the world and more importantly, herself.

“Penelope” combines supernatural elements of a fairytale with modern, relatable problems. The characters, though in less than normal circumstances, speak to something that every ordinary person can understand and the healthy body image message makes the film fulfilling for modern girls and women.

The talented cast deserves credit for making the film successful. Christina Ricci uses the perfect amount of anguish without an excess of whininess. She evokes empathy from the audience and relates to them in a highly tangible way. Her mother, played by Catherine O’Hara, seems to recall every mother’s inability to impose her will on her daughter. She embodies overbearing parenthood with a comic talent that rails on the audience’s nerves and makes them laugh.

Additionally, James McAvoy artfully morphs “Prince charming” into a character that is realistic, flawed and soulful. Unlike the typical love interest, McAvoy is weighed by his own demons. He is incapable of rescuing himself, much less the damsel in distress. Hence his twist of fairytale love is offbeat, yet palpably appealing. Through his chemistry with Ricci, indie meets fairytale.

The detail and craft put into every character makes the story rich and diverse. Even the supporting cast, which includes Reese Witherspoon, brings unique offerings that help reinvent an old story of romance and self-discovery. “Penelope” finally gets the modern fairytale right. Its lovable characters and noble message are truly memorable and it promises to make audiences fall in love – with themselves

Contact Jess Shaffer at jshaffe1@nd.edu.