By DAVID GERMAIN, AP Movie Writer
No offense intended, but a pig snout is very becoming on Christina Ricci.
The actress is lovably adorable in the adorably lovable "Penelope," a fairy-tale romance that's a perfect mix of Ricci's oddball sensibilities and her inherent sweetness.
The film further establishes the tremendous range of James McAvoy, proving that the co-star of such heavy dramas as "Atonement" and "The Last King of Scotland" is just as engaging as a leading man in a sunny comedy.
Adding to the fun is producer Reese Witherspoon popping up in a small role and clearly having a blast just hanging in the background as the story of Penelope the pig-faced girl plays out.
You could hardly find a more different role than the one Ricci played in her last release, "Black Snake Moan," in which she spent much of her time chained to a wall by Samuel L. Jackson, who was trying to mend her character's slutty ways.
Like a storybook of old, "Penelope" offers a pithy prologue establishing long-ago events and the repercussions they have in the present.
An ancestor in the patrician Wilhern family gravely wrongs a servant girl, bringing down a gypsy curse that all female heirs to the clan will be born with the face of a pig. The only cure to their affliction: To earn the love of one of their own.
Five generations pass with only male heirs, until Penelope (Ricci) is born to Jessica and Franklin Wilhern (Catherine O'Hara and Richard E. Grant). Horrified by her daughter's appearance, Jessica keeps the girl in hiding until adulthood, when packs of potential suitors that might lift the curse come calling and just as quickly run screaming at their first glimpse of Penelope's snout.
One such suitor (Simon Woods) goes public with tales of a fanged pig creature at the Wilhern mansion. His story grabs the attention of Lemon (Peter Dinklage), a news photographer whose encounter with the Wilherns years earlier cost him an eye.
Lemon enlists the help of down-on-his-luck aristocrat Max (McAvoy) to pose as a suitor and obtain photos of the monster.
What follows is a smart, funny, endearing twist on "Beauty and the Beast," with Ricci and McAvoy showing boundless charm and chemistry as possible lovers whose secrets run much more than skin deep.
Witherspoon turns up as a saucy, Vespa-driving messenger who befriends Penelope when she goes on a "Red Riding Hood" quest into the big, bad real world. The two short, effervescent actresses could be sisters, Ricci's bubbly manner and intonations reflecting Witherspoon's own girly disposition.
The movie touches on current issues paparazzi and celebrity culture but this is a story out of time and place, unfolding in a bubble where a dwarf with an eye patch can stalk a girl with a pig's nose without attracting undue attention.
First-time director Mark Palansky and screenwriter Leslie Caveny, a TV sitcom veteran, spin a breathlessly paced little ditty that doesn't have an empty moment and offers a few pleasant surprises along the way.
One of the best comic actresses ever, O'Hara takes on a part that could have been a flat, tedious mom role but which she turns into a hilarious whirlwind of misguided motherhood. Nicely complementing O'Hara's bluster is Grant's matter-of-fact resignation that he's got a little piggy for a daughter.
"Penelope" also shows that filmmakers need to find more uses for Dinklage, the star of 2003's "The Station Agent" who, like O'Hara, takes what could have been a plain old heavy-with-a-heart character and makes him a sympathetic person.
Ricci's Penelope is such a sweetheart yearning but realistic, cynical but hopeful that anyone who stuck with her through even the beginnings of a conversation quickly would overlook her snout, which actually is more pug-nosed cute than bestial (Witherspoon rivals her for cuteness in one scene when she goes to a costume party dressed as a bee).The whole beauty lies within thing is the movie's timeworn message, but it unfolds in such an original and unassuming fashion that "Penelope" feels springtime fresh.
"Penelope," a Summit Entertainment release, is rated PG for thematic elements, some innuendo and language. Running time: 90 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 No one under 17 admitted.