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"Tinker Bell & the Great Fairy Rescue": Third Time’s a Charm

by on September 27, 2010

Phone home? What's a phone?It’s remarkable for any movie franchise to reach its third installment while maintaining quality, and almost none have ever managed to get better over time. However, this is the feat that Disney has managed to pull off with its Tinker Bell series of direct-to-video CGI movies. Admittedly, this might be because the first movie was the least of them, which is not to say it was bad but more that it was dedicated to introductions and needed to shake off the after-effects of a lengthy production process that was restarted from scratch at least once. The first movie was a good, solid effort, but there was definitely room to grow, and happily, the subsequent movies have stepped up and improved on that foundation. Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue may be a lot less dramatic than its stirring title might suggest, but it definitely continues the tradition of fine moviemaking that has marked the series since the first movie two years ago.

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue is set at the beginning of summertime, sending its cast of fairies to the countryside of England to assist in the seasonal transition. The warnings of mean-girl fairy Vidia fall on deaf ears when Tinker Bell insists on exploring the strange new horseless carriage that has rattled its way to the front of a cottage. From there, a chain of events splits the two as Tinker Bell finds herself the somewhat unwilling guest of a sweet but lonely little girl named Lizzy Griffiths, while Vidia trudges back to the fairy camp in the rain to rustle up a rescue mission. Lizzy absolutely adores fairies and is pleased as punch to meet one, even though her distracted and preoccupied scientist father takes a dim view of what he views as fantasy nonsense. The split narratives of the rescue and Tinker Bell and Lizzy’s growing friendship come together swiftly by the end of the film, as crises begin to pile up on one another and fairy rules need to be broken to save one of their own.

So it's pistils and stamens and bees that do that? Huh.One of the most impressive things about the Tinker Bell movies is the way don’t rely at all on the stereotypical good-guy/bad-guy dynamics. In place of more conventional conflict, the Tinker Bell movies construct more organic structures that establish obstacles to overcome and challenges to be met and circumvented. Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue is no exception. Even though a good portion of the movie is given over to extended “getting to know you” sequences with Lizzy and Tink, the movie never drags. A lesser film would have probably made Lizzy into some kind of juvenile ogre, making Tinker Bell a prisoner out of ignorance or malice. Despite her obvious desire for companionship, Lizzy is quick to give Tinker Bell both freedom and respect, which makes the friendship that grows between them much more credible. The ways the movie finds to keep Tinker Bell and Lizzy together feel less like plot contrivances than unhappy accidents at first and then signs of the strength of their bond later.

Indeed, everyone involved is (or becomes) remarkably sympathetic, despite their occasional cross-purposes or differences in viewpoint. Dr. Griffiths isn’t the usual clueless, antagonistic father that’s appeared in other Disney films of the past. He’s a harried single parent trying to balance home, work, and family—a very credible, modern dilemma that earns him our sympathy rather than our contempt. We genuinely feel for him when he finally finds some time for Lizzy only to discover that she has fallen asleep, as he murmurs ruefully, “There just aren’t enough hours in the day.” The closest that the movie comes to a genuine antagonist is the Griffiths’ obese pet cat who sees the fairies as prey, but even he isn’t acting out of malice as much as his natural instincts. We even learn to like Vidia, who is still the same haughty character from the first movie but who also does the right thing with no hesitation when the chips are down and nearly pays dearly for it. About the only complaint worth making about the story is the giant omission at the very end of the movie; while it yields a magical little moment between Lizzy, her father, and their new friends, it’s hard to ignore the large lump of plot device left implausibly abandoned.

I wonder what the evolutionary advantage of that pattern on the wings is...I am of two minds on Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue‘s approach to science. Science education these days is abysmal enough without pop culture actively undermining it, and there are times where I think the Tinker Bell franchise may be doing just that unintentionally. On the one hand, I understand and accept that the whole movie franchise is based on the extremely non-scientific idea that fairies are responsible for managing the change in seasons. It also vaguely bothers me to see Dr. Griffiths as a somewhat stereotypical absent-minded professor type who rejects the improbable with such vehemence, and that the setup requires him to be ultimately proven wrong. On the other hand, Tinker Bell herself is a wonderful little scientist in her own right, leading by example to demonstrate the value of being curious and experimental. It’s ironic that it’s the fairy who turns out to be the best scientist (or perhaps engineer) of the entire cast. I also appreciate how Lizzy’s use of a scientific field journal is presented as a fun activity that’s also rooted in a keen sense of observation and a reliance on empirical evidence—good, solid tools any good scientist requires. Or maybe I’m just being over-sensitive to this sort of thing.

Excellent animation has always marked the Tinker Bell movies, and Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue happily continues this trend. These movies are all especially marvelous to watch on Blu-ray, with several large-scale deep-focus shots that can really take advantage of the high-definition resolution of the screen. The movie also has a real sense of texture in materials as disparate as the coarse fabrics of Dr. Griffith’s clothing, the wood-grain of the Griffiths’ cottage, the fairies’ clothing woven from natural materials, and the steel and rubber of the Griffiths’ car. These technical skills are mated to a fine cast, led again by Mae Whitman’s pleasingly sassy Tinker Bell and followed by her many fairy friends. Pamela Adlon’s Vidia is especially worth singling out, as she never completely loses her thorny demeanor even as she is slowly taken in by the circle of fairy friends that drove the last two movies. I am also tickled beyond measure by one late-movie plot point on how the fairies use their fairy dust on common household objects to solve a problem, resulting in a genuinely magical little sequence that is marvelously creative and quite entertaining.

We're going to need a bigger boat.Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue gets another excellent presentation on Blu-ray, as is to be expected from the last two movies. As mentioned, the visuals are breathtaking, mated to a generally sedate 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack (along with 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks in French and Spanish). There is also a solid set of bonus features included, starting with several deleted scenes introduced by director Bradley Raymond and producer Helen Kalafatic. While many scenes never went past the storyboarding stage (which, incidentally, are wonderfully expressive despite their visual simplicity), several were fully rendered anyway even after getting cut from the movie specifically for these bonus features. A special sneak peek of Tangled is also included, with new footage and commentary from directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, as well as cast members Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi (and, unfortunately, it also seems that the pre-production artwork is tremendously more visually interesting than the CGI animation). There’s also a music video for the ending credits song by Bridgit Mendler, which is pleasant enough and avoids much of the electronic over-processing that plagues a lot of Disney teeny-bopper music. The “Fairy Field Guide Builder” quizzes viewers on their fairy knowledge, narrated by Mae Whitman as Tinker Bell and checking to see how much you’ve been paying attention in all three of the movies so far. Normally, these sorts of things are forgettable, but this one is worth the effort because of the charming animated crayon drawings that illustrate the quiz and for the unlockable bonus animated clip you get for working through all four sections. Finally, a “Design a Fairy House” featurette shows how a girl’s design for a fairy house was constructed for Walt Disney World. A DVD with identical content is also included with the Blu-ray combo pack.

The only other movie series I can think of where the third movie outdid the first so handily are probably the James Bond series, and probably the Harry Potter movies as well. I don’t think any other franchise, including Toy Story, has managed to get better as it went on, but with this third film, Tinker Bell can join that exclusive club. I am well outside the demographic for Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, but also old enough not to be embarrassed to admit that I like these movies quite a bit, and look forward to them each year (as does my niece). They are simply delightful little stories well told, with the kind of magic and heart that is expected from Disney, and can proudly stand alongside the best that the studio has produced in its long history.

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