I’m sure that Teenaged Ed would be horrified to learn that Adult Ed would actively look forward to Disney’s Tinker Bell direct-to-video movies. However, Teenaged Ed was an idiot about a lot of things and this would be one of them. While the latest installment, Secret of the Wings comes a year behind schedule, the wait was clearly worth it, since the movie is easily the best they’ve done yet. There is much genuine magic and cross-audience appeal to be found in Secret of the Wings. It is a really substantial movie built from really smart story choices, mythical resonances, superb vocal performances, and simply beautiful animation, with a touch of pixie dust to give it just enough buoyancy to take flight.
In Pixie Hollow, the Winter Woods are where fairies prepare the seasons to change to winter, but the beautifully austere land is strictly off-limits to any who aren’t from there. Such a mysterious, unknown land is, of course, irresistible to the insatiably curious Tinker Bell, who gets a powerful sensation that the land is calling to her after a chance visit to the border. When she makes herself an outer suit to keep her wings from freezing and smuggles herself over the border to explore, she discovers that she has a twin sister named Periwinkle from whom she had been separated for years. The two become fast friends, and are soon determined that nothing will keep them apart again, whether it’s the hazards of the warmer climates of Pixie Hollow for Periwinkle or the immovable stance of the Winter Woods’ Lord Milori that winter fairies and warm-season fairies must not intermingle. With the help of her friends, Tinker Bell builds a machine to allow Periwinkle to visit her lands, with the intention of going to Pixie Hollow’s Queen Clarion to ask that the rules be changed. But sometimes, rules exist for a reason and there are dire consequences for breaking them.
From the very first film, the Tinker Bell movies have been beautifully animated, vividly bringing the natural world to life from a thumb-sized fairy perspective and covering the screen in riots of natural colors and textures. Secret of the Wings is no exception, with advances in CGI animation bringing ever more detail and vibrancy to the scenes set in the warm-season lands of Pixie Hollow. The monochromatic color palette of the Winter Woods doesn’t prevent the same attention to detail and careful rendering, though, but the effects are definitely more subtle. There are differences to be spotted in the different kinds of ice and snow, and the way the cold will affect different surfaces. The absolute best compliment I can give to the design work in Secret of the Wings is that it feels like something Hayao Miyazaki would do if he worked in CGI.
Vocal casting has always been a strong suit of the Tinker Bell movies as well, starting with the charming and spunky performance of Mae Whitman as the title character. She is joined in this film by Lucy Hale’s Periwinkle, who mirrors Tink’s exuberant style while maintaining her own distinct identity. Timothy Dalton also does absolutely marvelous work as Lord Milori, lending the character real majesty and strength without making him feel like a tyrant or a dictator even when he’s laying down proclamations of what is forbidden. He pairs beautifully with Anjelica Huston’s Queen Clarion in the few scenes they have together. Tinker Bell’s supporting cast (Raven-Symoné as Iridessa, Megan Hilty as Rosetta, Lucy Liu as Silvermist, Angela Bartys as Fawn, and Pamela Adlon as Vidia) has always been strong enough that one often wishes they got more to do in these movies; they are joined by equally strong performances by Matt Lanter as the hunky winter fairy Sled, and Debby Ryan and Grey Delisle as Periwinkle’s friends Spike and Gliss. Rob Paulsen and Jeff Bennett play the bumbling tinker fairies Clank and Bobble, and fortunately their comedic schtick has been toned down a touch to keep them from wearing out their welcome. Bennett also doubles for Dewey, the Keeper of all knowledge for the Fairies, but his Italian accent has an unfortunate tendency to stray a bit too far into Chico Marx territory (though this does little to dampen Dewey’s charm).
All of the above is mated to a fine script that manages to balance between seriousness and humor better than any of the films before it. There is a real sense of consequence to Tinker Bell and Periwinkle’s actions, along with some surprisingly powerful emotional resonances established when the two meet and are then forced to confront the possibility of a permanent separation. The backstory of Lord Milori is also rather potent, and I greatly appreciated the very quiet way that the movie introduces lots of little throwaway elements that turn out to have far more import once they are pieced together by the middle of the movie. As mentioned before, Lord Milori is probably the closest the movie comes to a real antagonist, but while he may come off as a hard man, he is never unsympathetic or unlikeable. There are a few headscratcher plot twists, as characters seem to take the long way around a problem when a simpler solution would seem to be obvious, but even these can be conjured away by the strong characterization of the movie. Tinker Bell and Periwinkle are just impetuous and stubborn by nature, while reacting to the forbidden with insatiable curiosity. Characters like Lord Milori and Queen Clarion have legitimate motivations for their actions, which they withhold from others for entirely credible reasons.
It shouldn’t be surprising by now that the Blu-ray of Secret of the Wings looks and sounds spectacular, packing a full 1080p high-definition image and a 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack. The set is available in a DVD-only, Blu-ray/DVD 2-disc combo pack, and a 4-disc DVD/Blu-ray/Blu-ray 3D/Digital Copy pack. I don’t have the hardware to experience the film in 3D, but the digital copy of the movie is iTunes/iOS compatible rather than being in Ultraviolet format. The dominant bonus feature is the “Pixie Hollow Games,” a 22-minute short made for TV that was most probably made for the Olympics. It’s also an entirely winning short, largely thanks to the addition of a new tomboy-ish garden fairy, Chloe (voiced charmingly by Brenda Song), who has to team up with her exact opposite in Rosetta to compete in the Fairy Games. Of course, lessons are learned in teamwork and stepping outside your comfort zones, but the appeal of the Fairies movies has always taken the “how are we getting there?” route over the “where are we going?” route. The Chloe-Rosetta dynamic is largely what drives the short, and Chloe is such a winning character that I hope we get to see more of her in future Fairies projects. We also get one amusing short “Fright Night,” starring Blaze the firefly from Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure and Cheese the mouse. Finally, there are two music videos provided, one from Secret of the Wings and one from “Pixie Hollow Games,” by the McClain Sisters and Zendaya, respectively.
I will admit some concern when the winter-themed Tinker Bell movie missed its once-a-year schedule last year, wondering if the franchise had already run out of steam. Thankfully, Secret of the Wings proves that some things are worth waiting for, as it manages to top all its predecessors and turn in a thoroughly winning film for all viewers.