For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
This enjoyable modern fairy tale is about a girl under an ancient family curse until she is rescued by “one who will love her faithfully.” Penelope Wilhern (Christina Ricci) is more a wealthy Cinderella than Suffering Servant, but the would-be suitors who are brought to her by her parents, Jessica (Catherine O’Hara) and Franklin (Richard E. Grant), certainly do despise and reject her. With her large pig snout and pointy ears, she is more than “one from whom others hide their faces.” In this over-the-top humorous film, the suitors, at first drawn by the great wealth that the girl will inherit from her doting but anxious parents, always turn and run away, some even diving through a window in their haste to escape.
Blue-blood Edward Vanderman (Simon Woods) not only bolts from Penelope, but he also talks to the press about her. However her parents have kept Penelope and her condition a secret, so Edward’s story is not believed, and he becomes the laughing stock of society. The rest of the plot revolves around his hiring photographer Lemon (the diminutive Peter Dinklage in another of his delightful roles) and Johnny (James McAvoy) to find and expose her so that his reputation will be restored. He mistakes Johnny for a fellow socialite needing money because of gambling debts, but Max, as Johnny now calls himself, is actually quite penniless. Max does manage to get in to meet Penelope, but she sits behind a one-way mirror in order to keep hidden until she can determine the one who might love her for herself. The two are drawn to each other, but when Max sees her face to face, he freezes up, and then his started facial expression causes Penelope to retreat in bitter disappointment and humiliation. Despite his protestations, the tearful girl refuses to come out again from behind the mirror.
Will Johnny/Max ever be able to redeem himself so that the two can find true love? Well, not, of course, before a long series of events, one of the most enjoyable sequences being when the girl wraps her face in a scarf and ventures out into the world for the first time on her own. In a pub she meets Annie, delightfully played by Reese Witherspoon, who becomes her friend, one whom she thinks a bit strange because of the scarf, but still a friend. The last part of the film is not as good as the first, but no doubt pleases the young female audience to which it is directed. Penelope’s discovery that she can accept herself despite being rejected by so many others makes the film well worth watching and discussing.
1) How is Penelope like the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella?
2) How does our society make young girls feel like they’re ugly ducklings? If using the film with a teenage group, the leader should distribute teen magazines and let the youth, in twos or threes, look them over. Ask what are the qualities held up as essential by the articles and, even more, by the ads in the magazine. How are slimness, skin quality, facial beauty, having the right clothes and jewelry touted as essential for acceptance and happiness? What problems, especially for females, have resulted from the emphasis upon such values? What physically is there about yourself that you do not like or wish you could change?
3) Lemon might be an interesting character to look at: obsessed with getting a photo of Penelope, how is he himself an outcast? What are some of the problems that short people run up against in society?
4) Compare Penelope to Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. How does Penelope come to accept herself? What truth is there in the old fairy tale that one is changed by the one who truly loves you? How does the love from another help us to accept and love ourselves?
5) Two other films that might be brought into the discussion: Beauty and the Beast and Shrek.
6) What have you learned from this film? Does it affect how you might regard someone else judged as “ugly” or different” ? How did Jesus treat those deemed “unacceptable” ?