As a child I couldn't stand Beatrix Potter, and not just because her cute, jacketed critters bored me senseless. I loved tough children's tales, but Potter's stories were manipulative and twisted, filled with punitive authority figures -- Mrs. Rabbit is a prissy scold, Farmer McGregor an evil-tempered lout -- visiting tight-lipped moral justice on insipid mice, bunnies, and the truly insufferable Jemima Puddle Duck. Small wonder that poor Peter Rabbit cowers under the bedclothes while Mrs. R., like some demented Nurse Ratched, looms menacingly over him on all those quaint plates and mugs that fuel the multimillion-dollar Potter industry.
How the Potter franchise continues to flourish in this age of permissive parenting is either a mystery or a case of marketing trumping ideology, but surely there's a meaty drama to be made about the dark forces that drove this dyed-in-the-wool Victorian.
Director Chris Noonan (who made Babe) and screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr. (who specializes in musicals) are having none of it. Blackness may have lurked within the Potter heart, but you'd never know it from Miss Potter, which shifts the burden of ill humor onto the lady authoress' petite bourgeois mother (the excellent Barbara Flynn), thus freeing Renée Zellweger to perk up Beatrix into a chipper cross between Bridget Jones and Mary Poppins. Unfortunately for her, she has Emily Watson at her elbow, acting up a storm as the independent sister of Potter's doomed fiancé -- which had me wishing the two actresses would either trade places or run with the promisingly homoerotic current that courses through most close same-sex friendships of that period.
Nothing doing. Bronzed and russet all over, Zellweger's Beatrix bustles about, flashing the Zellweger sour-lemons smile, dispensing maidenly charm and no-nonsense practicality as she shepherds her little tales from soup to nuts with only grudging help from a whiskered family of publishers, save for the youngest brother, Norman (a wishy-washy Ewan McGregor). Smiling nervously as if not to unseat the mustache precariously affixed to his upper lip, this Mr. McGregor does nothing to convince us that the pallid swain is the love of Beatrix's life, his untimely death withering her creative juices until a sensible country solicitor (Lloyd Owen) restores her to pink-cheeked vivacity.
It's doubtful whether Potter -- a woman who battled her way to fame, wealth, and a pioneering spot in the conservation movement, in a world where women mostly sat and sewed -- bore any resemblance to the film's serenely girlish figure. Which may be why the only bright spots in Miss Potter are the all-too-sparing special effects, in which Peter and his pals come to life, rise up, and quite understandably scuttle away from their wimpy creator.