Wander into a screening of "Miss Potter" a few minutes late to see Renée Zellweger, in a long skirt and loose bun, scribbling in a notebook while musing to herself in British-accented voice-over and you might easily mistake it for another sequel. Could it really be "Bridget Jones III: Edwardian Spinster?"
Well, no. It's "Miss Potter," an oddball rendering of the life of Beatrix Potter, the world-famous creator of Peter Rabbit and one of the bestselling children's book authors of all time. Written (originally as a musical) by lyricist and musical theater director Richard Maltby Jr. and directed by "Babe's" Chris Noonan, the movie is at once a flagrant piece of kitsch and an unexpectedly affecting story about an individual overcoming personal tragedy and brutally restrictive circumstances by talent and force of will.
From the moment she appears on screen, Zellweger imbues the character with many of the same flinchy, purse-lipped mannerisms she brought to Bridget, but it soon becomes clear that Beatrix is no ordinary singleton. Thirty-six and unmarried in 1902 (though, unaccountably, the movie makes her 32 the year she published "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," because, let's face it, nobody wants to see a movie about a 36-year-old spinster, there are limits), Miss Potter talks to her illustrations as though they were real, and the adorably anthropomorphized woodland animals and bonnet-wearing fowl (to which she referred, when speaking with other adults, as her "friends") blink and scamper right back at her. This is meant to be enchanting, but kill the condescending fairy-dust score by Nigel Westlake and the next scene could easily take place at the local asylum.
The movie begins with the publishing company of Frederick Warne and Sons agreeing to take on Miss Potter's "bunny book" as a practice project for their younger brother just joining the business. The brother turns out to be Ewan McGregor. Things start looking up for Miss Potter. Norman Warne (McGregor) takes Beatrix's characters as seriously as she does and shepherds "Peter Rabbit" to unexpected success. Beatrix and Norman's sister Millie (Emily Watson) become close friends, and eventually Norman proposes — which doesn't sit well with Beatrix's wealthy, snobbish parents.
"Miss Potter" is peppered with flashbacks of Beatrix as a child (she's played by Lucy Boynton), when she apparently wrote and drew as well as she did as an adult. Despite good performances by Boynton and Oliver Jenkins as Beatrix's brother Bertram, the scenes add little more than gratuitous adorability to the movie as a whole and saddle what turns out to be a sad and ultimately inspiring story with unnecessary and simplistic psychological back story. Take away the childhood scenes, the animated sequences, the treacly score and the unaccountable forced cheer and "Miss Potter" might have been formidable. As it is, it's a maddeningly confused movie that seems to have no idea of what it wants to be when it grows up.
Still, the movie is redeemed by excellent performances. McGregor, in particular, lights up the film, and in her scenes with him, when she is not forced to interact with watercolor rabbits, Zellweger seems to wake up from a long, cranky nap. His Norman is a pure, puppyish innocent with a bounding enthusiasm for Potter's work. "I put your drawings aside with great reluctance!" he tells her on the first day he comes to her house to talk business. Watson is funny and endearing as Millie, who immediately recognizes Beatrix as a kindred spirit unlike the other unmarried daughters in their circle, who "sit around gossiping all day and unaccountably bursting into tears."
These moments make "Miss Potter" worth seeing, if you can get past the feeling that you're watching a Merchant Ivory film trapped in a Disney movie's body.
"Miss Potter." MPAA rating: PG for brief mild language. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 848-3500; Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica (310) 281-8223.