Starring Christina Ricci, James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara, Reese Witherspoon
Directed by Mark Palansky
Consider this scene: On any given morning, I walk into my 7-year-old daughter's room, and I am immediately assaulted by a flurry of pink and purple and pony.
Despite my best feminist intentions — a supply of gender-neutral toys, an insistence on games that promote active play and critical thinking, a ban on all things pink and glittery — my daughter's room is overflowing with the trappings of our current princess-and-pony culture.
A Barbie doll house and jeep, a basketful of brightly colored, wild-haired ponies, Disney Princesses Monopoly and dress-up paraphernalia, ballet slippers, and tiaras — all the things my husband and I swore we'd keep out of our daughter's life.
We want to raise her to be smart and brave, not cute and perky.
It seems society has other plans.
Mine is a familiar feminist tale, I'm sure. Armed with the knowledge of all the esteem-crushing, soul-sucking traps our society sets for girls, feminist parents do everything we can to ensure that our daughters navigate those traps happily and successfully. But if I sign my kid up for soccer, knowing that participation in a competitive sport helps protect a girl's self-esteem, the culture offers up pink shin guards and sparkly mauve soccer balls.
If I refuse shoes that mimic the come-hither quality of women's high heels, in their place comes sturdy pink cowboy boots decorated with silver, glittery butterflies. If I object to fairy tales that reward heroines for being pleasantly passive, I'm offered Enchanted, which features a heroine whose big revelation is that she can choose a different Prince Charming. That, or Shrek, which teaches that a woman's true form matches that of the man who falls in love with her.
Given all this, though, I still hold out hope for movies like Penelope. Not just because the film features Christina Ricci and James McAvoy, actors I adore. Or because it comes to us from Reese Witherspoon's production company, Type A Films. I hold out hope because I love a good story, one that's well told.
I love the narrative possibility that fairy tales offer us — to be transported to a magical world where witches cast spells and knights slay dragons, where animals sing and become lifelong companions, where a girl can always find adventure and opportunity down a rabbit hole or under a red riding hood or down a country lane, where good deeds are rewarded and bad people are punished.
There's a reason we continue to read tales from the Brothers Grimm and pass along Aesop's fables to our children. They are excellent stories that speak to something deep and primal within us (as I'm sure smarter people have already argued). All I'm asking for is a good story that doesn't encourage my daughter to pursue a life of vapid pink excess, all in the hopes of nabbing a dubious prince.
I'm happy to report that Penelope gets it right. The story, a reworking of Beauty and the Beast, is about a family curse that shows up in the form of a pig snout on the otherwise lovely face of Penelope.
The family, an old-money, well established family in The City, spends the first 25 years of Penelope's life trying to break the curse. The movie opens after a succession of failed attempts. To say much more about the film's plot would take away from the pleasure of experiencing the story.
And that story — about not equating what you look like with how you feel, about not waiting for life to happen to you, about the fraught relationship between mothers and daughters, about the magic and possibility we all hold inside ourselves — is a story worth telling and one my daughter and I very much enjoyed.
If fairy tales offer us a lesson, then Penelope's lesson is two-fold.
First, it reminds my daughter that life's greatest prize is not a prince or a castle or a happily ever after. Life's greatest prize is a happy, confident self. Maybe that's corny and cliché, but we can all easily rattle off a long list of people who suffer because they have yet to learn this lesson.
Secondly, Penelope reminded me to really look at my daughter, not just at the dangers that await her, but really look at the person she's becoming. Sure, she'll happily play endless rounds of Disney Princesses Monopoly, but she plays with a ruthlessness that would send shivers down Donald Trump's spine.
Both her Barbie plane and jeep have yet to hold any Barbies. They are far too busy ferrying supplies to archaeological digs on Mars. And her pink cowboy boots have proven to be the perfect footwear for climbing slides and trees, and for making fashionable entrances at birthday parties.
Early in the movie, McAvoy's character talks to Penelope through a mirror. It's clear he doesn't like what he sees. The audience spends the entire movie hoping that he and Penelope, and, indeed, everyone in the movie, learn to like the person they see when they look in the mirror. And at the end of the day, that's all I want for my own kid — I hope that when she gets to the end of her movie, she likes who she sees in the mirror, pink shin guards, glittery tiara, and all.