Review: "The Pirate Fairy" Charts a Course for Adventure
While watching Disney’s The Pirate Fairy, it struck me that the Tinker Bell franchise was My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic before there was My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. They’re films that aim squarely at young girls as their target demographic, but they’re done with so much skill and charm that the boys who turn up their noses and sneer at the “girly” movie sight-unseen are only depriving themselves of some fine entertainment that they’d probably really like. I said of the first movie that girls would love it and boys may not admit it, but The Pirate Fairy seems almost tailor-made to overcome the (frankly foolish) objections of boys. I even got to witness this firsthand, since my five-year old son has hit the age to make big, broad gender distinctions and think that girls are yucky, but I could hear the wheels turning in his head as he flipped back and forth between, “pirates are for boys…but fairies are for girls…but pirates are for boys…but fairies are for girls…” Fortunately, The Pirate Fairy provides plenty of rousing adventure for boys and girls alike, along with a few more explicit nods to Tinker Bell’s eventual role in Peter Pan.
The opening sequence of The Pirate Fairy introduces us to Zarina (voiced by Christina Hendricks), one of the “Dust Keeper” fairies responsible for managing the supply of magical pixie dust. Zarina sticks out among the Dust Keepers in much the same way Tinker Bell stuck out from the other Tinker fairies, with an overdeveloped sense of curiosity and an inability to follow directions. An unauthorized experimentation with the powerful blue pixie dust leads to catastrophe, after which Zarina vanishes from Pixie Hollow. One year later, Zarina returns to steal the entire supply of blue pixie dust, sending Tinker Bell (voiced by the ever-capable Mae Whitman) and her friends Silvermist, Iridessa, Fawn, Rosetta, and Vidia in pursuit. Their chase leads them to a pirate ship crewed by a multi-national batch of crusty scallywags, who dream of plundering the world with impunity in a flying frigate covered in pixie dust.
The Pirate Fairy is great fun from start to finish. Zarina is largely cut from the same cloth as Tinker Bell: a misunderstood and unappreciated forward thinker who has to convince everyone around her of the validity of her ideas. The close personality to Tinker Bell makes it very easy to sympathize with her early on. She does serve as an interesting foil to the rest of the fairies, driving a major plot complication when she uses her pixie dust alchemy to mix up the abilities of Tinker Bell and her friends. There have always been minor callbacks in the Disney Fairies movies to the original Peter Pan, such as a cameo by Wendy in the first film, but The Pirate Fairy makes the most explicit ones yet with a visit to Skull Rock, the origin story of the “Tick Tock Croc,” and one more plot element that I’m reluctant to reveal because I’m not sure if it is meant to be a surprise. The marketing materials (and even the plot synopsis on the back of the packaging) give away the twist, but the gradual accumulation of details in the movie itself make me think it’s something we’re supposed to figure out on our own, with the dead giveaway coming in a post-credits sequence. It does raise some questions about how Peter Pan plays out, though the inconsistencies can be easily hand-waved away.
The Pirate Fairy also shakes up other elements in the franchise. This movie probably has the most adventure-themed plot since Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, with derring-do in the high seas (and, eventually, in the sky). The climactic battle on the pirate’s ship is novel for being the franchise’s first explicit battle scene, and I must commend the crew’s creativity in staging a fight between a crew of big, burly pirates and flying, twinkling, six-inch high fairies. Interestingly, the pirates are the vehicle for the first big musical number in any of these movies, in a show-stopping number titled “The Frigate That Flies” that’s one of the best, catchiest musical numbers out of Disney in years.
Two things that have not changed from the prior movies are the quality of the CGI animation and the voice acting performances. While the seasonal themes allowed the animators and art directors to visually differentiate between the earlier Tinker Bell movies, The Pirate Fairy does so by shifting most of the action to the sea. Water effects are excellently done (although wet hair sometimes looks a little off), and there’s some wonderfully detailed texture work in the variety of surfaces on the ship, from the rough canvas of the sails to the wood on the decks and the cold iron on the cannons. I’m also quite charmed by the designs of Zarina and the pirates. Zarina’s unkempt hair and woven cloth clothing sets up a stark contrast to the more prim and proper Pixie Hollow fairies wearing clothing adapted from nature. Meanwhile, the pirates are delightfully exaggerated caricatures, from the tall and thin first mate James to the diminutive cook Oppenheimer and the big, burly bruisers Bonito and Yang. The crew also balances seriousness and comedy perfectly to make these pirates just threatening enough that we’ll genuinely worry about Tinker Bell and her friends, but not so scary that they lose their inherent sense of comedy. It’s the same trick that Peter Pan pulled on its cast of pirates, and it’s executed with the same skill in The Pirate Fairy.
The same superlative regular cast returns from earlier films. In this film, I think Pamela Adlon has the most fun as Vidia, who (much to her horror) starts thinking and talking like a Tinker fairy after the power-switch. She never breaks character as she starts rattling off comments about structural integrity and re-purposing found items, right before recoiling in horror at what she’s doing. Christina Hendricks makes a fine Zarina, being appealingly curious and energetic in the early scenes of the movie, but defiant and assertive afterwards. Tom Hiddleston lends his tony British lilt to James (and belts out his part in “The Frigate that Flies” exceptionally well), but can still bring out plenty of sharp edges for the last act of the movie (which, unsurprisingly, hinges on the fact that pirates aren’t the most trustworthy people in the world).
The Pirate Fairy looks terrific on Blu-ray, with richly detailed 1080p video and a gloriously full DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. There are relatively few bonus features, but the ones we get are quite satisfying. “Second Star to the Right: The Legacy of Never Land” features several of the filmmakers (including director Peggy Holmes, producer Jenni Magee-Cook, and screenwriter Jeffrey M. Howard) discussing their affection for Peter Pan and Never Land, and how elements from the original film and the original J.M. Barrie material made its way into this film. A “Croc-U-Mentary” is a decent short subject about crocodiles. For all the times I’ve complained about rotten science in the bonus features in past Tinker Bell movies, it’s really nice to see something as good as this feature popping up on the disc. Actors Tom Hiddleston and Carlos Ponce are the major draws for “The Making of ‘The Frigate That Flies'”, which shows both at work in the recording booth and giving some behind-the-scenes about being a cartoon pirate. Several deleted scenes in storyboard form are also included, most of which slightly extend existing scenes in the movie. Two short films are also present: the first is the fairies engaging in som pirate clowning on a beach, and the second earns laughs by torturing Vidia inside a pirate’s treasure chest. Both are highly amusing. There are also two karaoke-style music videos for the theme song “Who I Am” and “The Frigate That Flies.” Those with the Disney Movies Anywhere app can also get a few more bonus features there, along with a digital copy of the movie after entering the redemption code in the enclosed flyer. As a side note, Disney doesn’t seem to be offering the movie in Blu-ray 3-D, suggesting that the experiment with offering Secret of the Wings in that format didn’t pay off.
Though I really enjoyed The Pirate Fairy, I can’t help but notice the delay in getting the movie to the screen, and reading between the lines of some offhand comments in the “making of” featurette suggest that the movie went through a pretty major overhaul during development. If nothing else, it’s somewhat suspicious that Disney had been using the same “switched abilities” clip since Secret of the Wings, but the original title of this movie was Quest for the Queen and pirates never figured into this film until very late in 2013. Of course, as Don Hahn pointed out in The Alchemy of Animation, it’s a strength of the medium that you can go back and redo things until they work as long as money and endurance hold out, and Pixar famously scrapped and started over on both of the first Toy Story movies, so the lengthy and seemingly difficult birthing process for The Pirate Fairy isn’t something to hold against it. At the moment, there’s one more Disney Fairies movie scheduled, but The Pirate Fairy is the first movie that doesn’t have any preview material for the next one, and perhaps that’s for the best. So far, the Tinker Bell franchise has gone five for five, but the delays between each movie are growing so it might be for the best to let the next one sit a little longer to ensure the magic continues.