There is a generous portion of films that never needed to be made and a huge percentage of those are the dreaded biopics of entertainers. Let’s not kid ourselves about these films: The majority of them are barely above made-for-TV quality and the rest skate by on the filmmaker’s merits, not the subject matter. Films like “Finding Neverland,” “Beyond the Sea,” and “De-Lovely” are bad for a reason: Their main subject matter isn’t an interesting person. One of the most recent entertainers joining the ranks of mid-level performers and creators undeserving of cinematic notice is children’s author Beatrix Potter.
Born in 1866 to a family that existed on old money from both her parents’ inheritances, Beatrix Potter lived a life of favor made possible by her family’s wealth. An odd and lonely child, Potter spent most of her younger years surrounded by sketchbooks, journals, and her beloved animals. It were these creatures that would go on to inspire such iconic children charters as Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle. Unfortunately for the film “Miss Potter,” Potter’s creations were the most interesting thing about her, and trying to wrap a captivating film around her otherwise uneventful life proves to be a waste of everyone’s time. Including my own.
The majority of “Miss Potter” focuses on her relationship with one of the sons of the publishing house that put out her diminutive tales. While “Miss Potter” does a fine job of capturing the mood, fashion, and dialect of nineteenth-century London, the film seems to go in slow motion every time Beatrix Potter (Renee Zellweger) shuffles on screen. This isn’t the film’s fault but rather the fact that Zellweger is possibly one of the worst actresses currently working in major films. She has no depth or range, and her fake British accent is so bad that during filming Keanu Reeves called up the set to try and give her some speech coaching. Proof that Zellweger’s lack of skill helped to hold this film back is shown in every scene in which the energetic Ewan McGregor appears as her love interest, Norman Wayne. McGregor’s performance alone is what saves this movie from being borderline unwatchable.
The most confusing aspect of the film is the way the very odd character of Beatrix Potter is treated. While “Miss Potter” wants you to have this enchanted feeling about the author, I walked away from it more creeped out than charmed. The film implies that Potter actually sees and talks to her imaginary animal friends like Jemima Puddle-Duck. While the filmmakers do crudely animate the drawings or other things that she sees that nobody else can, they fail to accomplish their goal of enchantment. In fact, if somebody is seeing and communicating with lucid hallucinations, I don’t consider them to have a vivid imagination; I consider them to be completely insane and in need of medical help.
The anamorphic widescreen presentation of “Miss Potter,” featuring a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, does justice to the film’s well photographed and gorgeous exterior shots, and it keeps the bar high during interior scenes as well. Sadly, not much could be done about the fact that Zellweger still only has two expressions, “I have to go to the bathroom” and “I bit into a bad lemon…do you know the way to the restroom?” How she continues to receive such high-profile roles is beyond me; I just hope she keeps appearing in movies I have no interest in paying money for.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track does a magnificent job of never letting the unusually heavy-handed musical cues overpower Zellweger’s inability to create a believable British accent.
The commentary track featuring director Chris Noonan is yet another example of a moment where I felt like I was watching a different film than the one being commented on. Noonan plows through the film, heaping accolades on undeserved performances and leaving behind a commentary track oddly disjointed from reality. The only bit of worthwhile information I gathered from his track is that “Miss Potter” could have been far worse than it turned out. It was originally planned as a musical.
“The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter” is a polite, twenty-minute bio about Potter narrated by McGregor himself. The disc also contains “The Making of a Real Life Fairy Tale,” a self-congratulatory, behind-the-scenes look at the film that is entirely unnecessary and redundant in the face of the director’s commentary. In addition to the theatrical trailer for the film, a music video for the forgettable song “When You Taught Me How to Dance” is also included.
Absolutely nothing in “Miss Potter” outside of McGregor’s lively performance is worth anyone’s attention. The animation is cheap and depthless, without the life found in Potter’s charming original artwork. And first-time screenwriter Richard Maltby Jr’s syrupy sweet script fails to give Potter and Wayne’s star-crossed romance any real credence or importance. For kids looking to experience a truly enchanting tale, you’re better off picking up director Chris Noonan’s previous film, the near-perfect “Babe.” And for the adult looking for a true story mixed with fantasy that will actually enchant them and keep them awake, give Peter Jackson’s beautifully crafted “Heavenly Creatures” a try.