The Halloween season is now upon us in earnest, and with it the endless lists of the best things to be watching right now. There are the standards of course: you’ve got Hocus Pocus, I’ve watched The Addams Family movies a few times already, and you could close your eyes and blindly throw a dart at your television and hit one of several Tim Burton films airing at any given time. There are countless more, but anyone who doesn’t love horror may need to cast a bit of a wider net in order to catch something else to watch during October.
Luckily, there are plenty of wonderful options. Even Jane Austen got a little bit spooky with Northanger Abbey, and there’s a ton of television to get you in the mood for the season too. But one of my absolute favorite things to watch right now is a worthy inclusion that I don’t see on many lists this time of year, or any other time for that matter: the darling 2008 film Penelope. This movie is like the first sip of hot apple cider out of your favorite mug on a cold day.
When cursed by a witch, the rich and blue-blooded Wilhern family is doomed to have the next daughter born to their clan bear the face of a pig, and the only hope of the curse being broken is when someone “of her own kind” comes to love her. The Wilherns avoid this fate for several generations, having a string of only sons, but then along comes Penelope (Christina Ricci). To protect her from ridicule and unwanted attention Penelope’s parents keep her locked away in their cozy mansion for her entire childhood, and when she reaches adulthood, they arrange for groups of suitors to come to their home in the hopes that one of them will fall in love with her. Poor Penelope is continuously disappointed and hurt when each man is disgusted and afraid at the sight of her face. A romantic hero is definitely in order here, no? He arrives in the form of a young, strapping lad played by James McAvoy, who has several conversations with Penelope through a two-way mirror, and when he finally sees her he’s surprised but doesn’t run away like all the other men. Because of their bond, Penelope is inspired to run away from home and explore the outside world.
This is a movie that lives in the same whimsical realm as Pushing Daisies. The villains are too buffoonish to be truly threatening, the sidekicks Penelope meets during her adventure are eccentric and fun, and everything is absolutely charming. The story is told just like a fairy tale and has a beautiful message about self-acceptance and the importance of loving the things that make you unique. Whenever I’ve brought Penelope up in conversation, many people have never heard of it. I’m always equal parts disappointed that they’ve missed out on it and delighted that they get the chance to experience it for the first time.
Christina Ricci and James McAvoy create the sweetest little love story, and the ensemble cast is simply perfect. Sadly, even though fans of Schitt’s Creek can no longer get our weekly fix of Catherine O’Hara, we can scratch that itch by watching her in this. She’s hilarious as Penelope’s loving, if sometimes misguided mother and has a great back-and-forth dynamic with Richard E. Grant, who plays her husband and Penelope’s father.
But it’s Peter Dinklage as a determined tabloid reporter who really shines. He is as fabulous as always and steals every scene he’s in, all while getting to rock an eye patch! There are lines from him in this movie that I still quote to this day. Mostly to myself, but I certainly get a kick out of them. We even get Reese Witherspoon as the cool, badass best friend that someone like Penelope needs to help ease her out of her shell. This is an array of characters whose world you just want to drop into for a little while.
If what you love most about fall revolves around coziness, enjoying the feel of stepping on crunchy leaves, and basking in cool air, and soft blankets, Penelope is the kind of movie that wants to exist in that space too. It’s all warm light, bare tree branches, jewel-toned jackets, and scarves, and the big romantic scene full of love declarations takes place at a Halloween party, so need I say more?
Penelope is available on several streaming platforms, and more than deserves a space on your watch list for the season.