Ricci pleases in 'Penelope,' a fantastical take on the frog prince story

Women like to say they'd kiss a lot of frogs to get to a prince.

Men are not so hardy. Few of us would kiss anything to get anything, since for us the kiss (and related activity) is not a means to an end. It is the end.

Woe, then, to the title character in the offbeat comic fable "Penelope." She is a young lady (Christina Ricci) cursed by a witch to have the nose of a pig - a curse that can only be lifted when a young man of noble birth agrees to marry her.

Mom and Dad (Catherine O'Hara, Richard E. Grant) offer dowries and line up suitors, but all flee in involuntary horror when they get a look at Penelope's snout - a sequence the movie plays for consistent laughs.

This is tricky material, but director Mark Palansky manages to find the right offbeat tone, drawing on the slightly surreal presentation we might expect from Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Palansky creates a world wherein 19th century decorations blend with the modern, as do nationalities and accents, to form a unified look.

Palansky's backdrops create a whimsical tone that complements the fanciful story. While Penelope's parents are trying to find a suitor for their sheltered daughter, a newspaperman (Peter Dinklage) is trying to find Penelope - she's nearly an urban legend, and he wants a sensational photograph to prove she's real.

To that end, he hires a troubled, desperate aristocrat (James McAvoy) to pose as a suitor. He pretends to be (and may actually be) the one guy who can see past her nose, setting in motion a fragile love story.

"Penelope," though, isn't about how Penelope feels about her pretend suitor. It's about how she feels about herself. She gathers the confidence to leave home, to make friends (Reese Witherspoon, in a small role). She learns to disregard those who dismiss her because of her nose, even those who celebrate her for it.

It's a self-esteem message presented in a fresh and unusual way, and should resonate with what appears to be the movie's young, female target audience. *

Produced by Reese Witherspoon, Scott Steindorff, Jennifer Simpson; directed by Mark Palansky; written by Leslie Caveny; music by Joby Talbot; distributed by Summit Entertainment.