Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. Ron Perlman in TV's Beauty and the Beast. Robert DeNiro as Frankenstein's monster. Fine actors all; none known primarily for native good looks. Now add to this distinguished list of screen beasts… Christina Ricci?
That's precisely the trick that fuels Penelope, which hits theaters February 29. The premise is a reverse take on "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Frog Prince": an old family curse plants a porcine countenance on Ricci's title character, the otherwise highly marriageable daughter of a rich London family. Only acceptance by someone of her "own kind" – i.e. a blueblood – can break the curse. But of her many eligible suitors, only one isn't scared off by poor Penelope's appearance – and what's his true motivation?
Producer Reese Witherspoon joins an A-list cast that also includes Catherine O'Hara, Peter Dinklage, and James McAvoy, whom we've recently seen opposite Kiera Knightley in Atonement and holding his own with Forest Whitaker's Oscar-winning Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. They're joined by a number of top British comic actors, including Lenny Henry, Ronni Ancona, and Nick Frost in smaller roles.
The film is directed by a first-timer, Mark Palansky, with a screenplay by another newcomer to feature films, the television writer Leslie Caveny.
Caveny's stage play Love of a Pig recently had a successful Off-Off-Broadway run in New York. Despite its title, the play isn't directly related to the new film – the former was about a girl who loves a piggish fellow, not a pig-faced girl. But, as Caveny explains, it did contribute to her concept for the film, which was originally inspired by "a folk tale about a woman who was born into a rich family with a pig's face and her parents tried to marry her off by attaching this huge dowry. She never married and died lonely and alone and I thought it was such an amazing opportunity for a reverse Beauty and the Beast."
One thing Caveny didn't like was the folk tale's ending. "We've seen many fairytales where the woman loves the guy no matter what he looks like, so I wanted to create a story giving the woman the same treatment." The result is a feel-good flick with a twist. Simon Woods, who plays the bad-boy suitor, says, "It could have turned out almost cartoon-like, but [Palansky] has given some kind of heart and humanity to these characters… It's really a story about acceptance and about self-fulfillment and self confidence and the ability to be happy with yourself and to learn to love yourself. It also has a darker undercurrent… It's a sweet story with a mean streak running through it."
London itself is a major character in the story, as is the Wilhern family's ancestral home. The producers took pains with the production design, despite a relatively low budget. The house, which needed to be imposing and Gothic, is played by Foxwarren, a "Gothic country pile" just outside London, while London's village-like Primrose Hill neighborhood "lends itself perfectly to the fairytale feel of the movie," according to location manager Pat Karam.
A sweet but fast-moving and slightly edgy fairytale for all ages, Penelope is rated PG.