Fans of the fictionalized J.M. Barrie biopic Finding Neverland are bound to experience déjà vu watching the oppressively twee new biopic Miss Potter, a film that hews so closely to the Neverland template that it must have taken a phenomenal act of will not to just name it Finding Neverland 2: The Beatrix Pottering. Let's see: childlike protagonists unhealthily immersed in fantasy worlds of their own devising? Check. A high-wattage cinematic pair (Down With Love lovebirds Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor) neutered into playing asexual pixies? Check. Writer heroes whose mild eccentricities and not-so-dark desires shock and unnerve an oppressive, muttonchop-sporting high society that views imagination with unfettered disdain? Check. A pure-hearted spiritual bond between the male and female leads that darkens into tragedy in the third act? Check.
Chris Noonan's long-awaited and wholly underwhelming follow-up to 1995's Babe casts an insufferably precious Zellweger as legendary children's author Beatrix Potter, a 32-year-old unmarried woman who persists in peddling her drawings and stories to stone-faced men with ledger books for souls. A family publishing house eventually picks up one of Zellweger's children's books, but only to give inexperienced young McGregor a chance to work on a project without much commercial potential. McGregor and Zellweger stumble into a chaste romance, but Zellweger's wealthy, tradition-bound mother cringes at the prospect of her daughter marrying a common tradesman like McGregor.
Emily Watson rounds out the cast as McGregor's progressive, marriage-averse "spinster" sister, a liberated woman with The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name perpetually on the tip of her trembling tongue. Watson seems to want more than just friendship and moral support from Zellweger, but Potter is too meek and inhibited to contemplate even heterosexual sex, let alone kid-unfriendly Sapphic subversion. Potter periodically brings Zellweger's charming drawings to life in elegantly animated sequences that are as delightful and lyrical as the rest of the film is stilted and clumsy. In these far-too-brief passages, Potter's whimsy seems not only palatable, but winning. Otherwise, the film's wholesome, freshly scrubbed tedium suggests literary history drained of life and preserved in formaldehyde.