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'Penelope' features a talented cast, but risks nothing

Penelope (PG)

1 1/2 stars out of 4

With "Pan's Labyrinth" and last year's "The Orphanage," producer Guillermo del Toro revived the genre perfected by Tim Burton: the dark adult fairy tale. The big problem with those two movies: They were subtitled horror/art films with downbeat endings. Not exactly the typical, ideal mainstream fare.

"Penelope" is the kind of movie Burton might have made 20 years ago had he slipped into a state of temporary sentimentality. This movie wants to replicate the edge and whimsy of "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice" but isn't willing to take any chances. It risks nothing, so we are hesitant to make any kind of emotional investment.

Penelope (Christina Ricci) plays a grown woman who has never left the confines of her stately home. Since her birth, Penelope's privileged parents (Catherine O'Hara and Richard Grant) have shielded her from the outside world because she was born with a pig's nose and ears. It seems one of Penelope's long-deceased, blue-blood relatives broke ranks and married a commoner. This inflamed the ire of a local witch, who placed a curse on his family, and the first-born female heir - Penelope - has to pay the price.

In a baffling left-handed manner, the mother tries in vain to pawn Penelope off to any rich boy who can stand the sight of her. Beyond desperate, the mother finally gets her wish with Max (James McAvoy), a disheveled sort with upper-crust lineage and a nasty gambling addiction. The problem is, Max isn't exactly who he appears to be.

At various points, the movie seems to be set in either Manhattan or London. The accents of the characters are equally unpredictable. Some are English, some Scottish and in the case of Penelope - whose family has been in Britain forever - American. It's not a big deal, but it kills the suspension of disbelief and continually reminds us we're watching a movie.

Given the cutely odd and innocuous appearance of Penelope's snout, the collective overboard freakout of her possible suitors seems a bit extreme. They react as if she has two flaming heads and run screaming, with half of them jumping through a second-story plate-glass window. Again, not something huge in itself, but add up the little gaffs and constant narrative hiccups and you get a movie unsure of its point and uncomfortable with its own presentation.

The talented cast (which also includes Peter Dinklage and producer Reese Witherspoon in a glorified cameo) puts on their best faces, but if you look close, you can see all of them at one time or another looking like a deer in the headlights without any escape option. (Summit Entertainment)