By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
The new films Penelope and Bonneville have more in common than long delays before reaching theaters. They're both fairy tales, one more obviously — and slightly more satisfyingly — than the other.
Penelope was filmed about two years ago; Bonneville a year before that. Each was shelved until now, because they're only good enough to register attention while Hollywood takes a breather after the awards season.
Like the old studio joke goes: They aren't being released, they escaped.
In fact, gaining freedom is the theme of both movies. In Penelope, a pig-snouted girl (Christina Ricci) is hidden from the world by embarrassed parents. There are no pig noses among the three middle-aged women (Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Joan Allen) on a road trip in Bonneville, but their adventure is tougher to buy into.
Penelope announces its fanciful intent at the outset with "once upon a time," as we go back centuries to a curse placed on a wealthy family by a witch. The next daughter in the bloodline will resemble Babe, but that doesn't occur until present day. The curse can be broken only by a "blueblood" falling in love with Penelope despite her snout.
There's a witch in Bonneville, too. Christine Baranski does everything but stir a cauldron as the caustic daughter of Arvilla's (Lange) late husband. She wants her father's cremated ashes in San Diego, not Idaho where her father and second wife Arvilla lived for 20 years. Arvilla's dilemma: give up the ashes or lose the house.
Instead, she dusts off the vintage titular Pontiac and loads it with her friends Margene (Bates) and Carol (Allen). Margene has given up on romance, and Carol has forgotten it during a stressed marriage. They'll do the usual road trip things that don't happen in real life: pick up a sweet, helpful hitchhiker (Victor Rasuk), go to Las Vegas where the one who doesn't gamble wins a fortune, and flirt with a truck driver (Tom Skerritt) who falls for plump, 50-ish Margene.
Penelope's breakaway is more magical. She runs across her family's estate and through a gate that opens to a metropolis right across the street. With her nose hidden by a scarf, she marvels at a world she has never known, meeting a plucky new friend (Reese Witherspoon, barely more than a cameo).
Maybe Penelope will find the lone suitor who didn't skedaddle (James McAvoy, Atonement) but was helping a tabloid photographer (Peter Dinklage) get a photo of "the freak." Or perhaps she'll settle for the high society prig (Simon Woods) trying to spruce up his image and bank account.
I'm not sure how Penelope breaks the curse, since the movie violates its own rules of enchantment. Ricci's sincere, sympathetic performance — and a hint of McAvoy's alleged charm — smooths over any problems of logic and odd tone. Penelope looks like a child's fairy tale but contains grownup themes. The contrast isn't always successful, but viewers may not mind.
Not so with Bonneville. This is a grownup's movie structured like child's play, with serious themes frittered away at every turn. No movie with two Oscar winners and a third actor (Allen) who'll win one someday can be called poorly performed. However, poorly written and directed are definite complaints. Bonneville ends up happily never after.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.