Today's kids live in a frantic pop-culture world filled with flashing images, electronic doo-dads and licensed characters that exist more to sell related junk than to win hearts. It's a crash-bang-buy-it-now! place that would surely send erstwhile children's favorites such as Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Jemima Puddle-Duck scurrying for the comparative peace of the barn.
Well, welcome to the multi-plex, you furry and feathered old-timers -- you've got extended cameos in the new film Miss Potter.
Chris Noonan's adoring bio-pic tells the story of Beatrix Potter, who created the aforementioned creatures. Potter published 23 slim books, and became a best-selling children's author. But our story begins, as they often do, before Potter had achieved much of anything.
In 1902 London, Potter (Renée Zellweger), thirtysomething and unmarried, leads a dull, sheltered life with her well-to-do parents. Trips beyond the parlor required the attendance of a minder: the shriveled, dour and elderly Miss Wiggin (Matyelock Gibbs), in whom Potter could surely glimpse her own colorless future.
But a lifelong affection for small animals results in a manuscript for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, an illustrated account of a misbehaving rabbit. Frederick Warne & Company, a family-run publishing house, accepts the work, and consigns it to the youngest brother, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), hoping the book's certain failure will kill his appetite for the business.
Instead, Peter Rabbit is a resounding success, assuring both subsequent books and a private income. Potter trades her passive timidity for control of her destiny -- and that of her characters (she insisted the book be pocket-sized, for small hands and for small pocketbooks). Additionally, she and Warne begin a clandestine, albeit utterly chaste, romance.
It's here, during Potter's heady successes, that the story delivers its tidbits of domestic melodrama, though with kid-glove reserve. (Like the proper ladies of yore, you might want to pack a small lace handkerchief, just in case.) And don't look for any darkness to be revealed, any turbulent waters beneath Potter's placid exterior. All nastiness is confined to heavy sighs and passive-aggressive sniping among the players. Miss Potter remains warm and cozy, like a cup of afternoon tea genteelly served in delicate rose-patterned china.
Thus, scenes of Potter standing up to her parents play a bit lifeless. We never truly feel the frustration that fuels Potter. While Miss Potter has the whiff of the Emancipated Woman about it, the only other modern single woman proffered is Warne's sister Millie (Emily Watson), who is ultimately more sad sack than confident feminist. And, without more probing into Potter's psyche, the final reel seems disjointed and rushed, as Potter embarks on a new life, one that also includes campaigning for land preservation.
McGregor, an often intense actor, dials it down to portray the tentative Warne; his courtship scenes with the equally shy Potter are rather sweet. While I ultimately found her winning, I can't say this is a glamorous role for Zellweger: She sports a ruddy, blotchy complexion, ill-kempt hair and unattractive facial tics; her twitchy nose and continually pursing lips are not unreminiscent of some of her rabbit friends.
While this film, about a beloved children's author, is certainly family-friendly, it's not really one for the kiddies. They'll likely be bored by the adult stuffiness of it all (unless your precious darling already Tivos Masterpiece Theater). But if you adored the books as a child, you'll be charmed by the film's unwavering affection and respect for their author, whose mildly inspirational story Noonan gilds with lovely scenery and lush sets. Amid the Transformers and Baby Einsteins, there is still a little corner of our cultural landscape safe for Peter Rabbit and his admirers.
- A work in progress: Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger