"Tinker Bell:" The Girls Will Love It, The Boys May Not Admit It
Some toy commercials are disguised as entertainment, and some entertainment is disguised as a toy commercial. The link between entertainment and merchandise has existed ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs figured out the cross-marketing potential of Tarzan, turning him into the first mass-merchandised fictional character, but that success pales in comparison to the virtual art form of character-driven marketing developed by Walt Disney and the company that bears his name. Indeed, examining the field for any length of time makes it clear that merchandising money is what makes the wheels of much of the American animation industry turn, so it’s rather futile to criticize the new direct-to-video movie Tinker Bell for being just one component in a massive marketing effort for Disney Fairies, aimed at girls too old for Disney Princesses and too young for Hannah Montana. Such things are just a fact of life today, so the only question that matters is, “Is the movie any good?”
Tinker Bell is very, very good indeed. Directed by Bradley Raymond from a script by Jeffrey M. Howard and produced by Jeannie Roussel, Tinker Bell happily blocks out memories of earlier Disney “dreck to video” projects, and if its plot seems suspiciously familiar, its execution is still excellent. Despite the long development time and disturbing rumors of the movie’s troubled production, the movie is never less than charming, and quite often achieves the ethereal sense of magic that is the hallmark of Disney animation. If Tinker Bell tends to be dominated by explanations, the world being established is quite fascinating in its own right. This extended setup also gives Disney Fairies a far more durable foundation on which to build a franchise than Disney Princesses, which grew unexpectedly and never had much cohesion between the different characters. Judging by the enraptured reaction of my 9-year old niece, the movie ought to score big with its intended audience of pre-teen girls, but it is also good enough to reach out well past that audience as well. Boys may be slightly embarrassed to admit watching Tinker Bell and probably won’t buy any of the tie-in merchandise, but those willing to sit through it will find plenty to like here, as will any accompanying parents or other supervising adults.
Tinker Bell feels a bit like Pixar’s A Bug’s Life set in the world of Peter Pan, with a surprising amount of material lifted from J.M. Barrie’s original books mixed in as well. According to the movie, the changing of the seasons and all the colors of nature are provided by the fairies of Pixie Hollow, with each fairy born with a special talent: making the plants and animals awaken in spring, giving the fireflies their glow in summer, painting the leaves of autumn, or crafting every individual snowflake of winter. However, the fate of the newest arrival to Pixie Hollow is to join the Tinker fairies, who are tasked with providing the tools and supplies for the nature fairies to do their work. They’re sort of like the IT department of Neverland, providing infrastructure support that is important but not directly related to the business of being a fairy. Unfortunately, despite her clear natural gifts at being a tinker, the newly christened Tinker Bell begins to think she got cheated, especially once she finds out that tinker fairies don’t get to go to the mainland with the nature fairies to bring about the change of the seasons. Unfortunately, enlisting her friends Silvermist, Iridessa, Fawn, and Rosetta to try and learn a new talent only ends up creating chaos, while simultaneously alienating her tinker friends Clank and Bobble. Before long, her actions precipitate a major crisis in Pixie Hollow, and it will take all of Tinker Bell’s talents and insight, plus a little bit of magic, to set things right.
Many longtime Disney fans were puzzled, if not outright terrified, at the idea of making Tinker Bell the lead character of her own movie, considering that she was a silent character who repeatedly tries to kill the leading lady in the original Peter Pan. Those fans can all breathe a bit easier — while some of her sharper edges have been smoothed out a bit, this movie’s Tinker Bell is still recognizable as the same character who appeared in Peter Pan, despite the transformation from hand-drawn animation to CGI and the addition of a speaking voice provided by the gifted Mae Whitman. This CGI Tinker Bell often tosses in tics that are lifted straight from the character animation of the original movie, especially when Tinker Bell is expressing annoyance, anger, or impatience. Any doubts about hearing Tinker Bell speak will be dissipated quickly by Whitman’s charming and boisterous performance as Tinker Bell, which balances sweetness, wonder, and stubbornness to make a thoroughly winning character. This Tinker Bell is also much sweeter and nicer than the slightly vindictive and jealous one who appears in Peter Pan, but the movie does drop a hint or two that the events of the classic movie are still several years away. There are three planned sequels to develop her character further, after all.
The newer pixies are all equally charming, and although Tinker Bell’s four friends aren’t terribly deep characters, they all come to vivid life thanks to excellent voice casting. America Ferrera’s assertive and outgoing Fawn is probably the best of the lot, as she turns in a memorable supporting performance that steps a bit further away from the flat archetypes of the others. It’s also worth noting the nicely integrated fairy population of Pixie Hollow that’s reflected in Tink’s friends. Pamela Adlon brings an appropriate amount of venom to the mean-girl fairy Vidia, who serves as one of the movie’s antagonists (the others being a surprisingly vicious hawk and a destructive and uncontrollable bunch of weeds called sprinting thistles). As a character, Vidia is even thinner than the other fairies, but it definitely feels like we’ll be getting an explanation for her attitude in a later DTV (especially considering her major role in the announced plot synopsis for the third Tinker Bell movie). Anjelica Huston turns up as Queen Clarion, lending equal parts of warmth and majesty in a rare voice-acting performance. An entirely different and more approachable authority figure is found in Fairy Mary, the head tinker who bustles to life in the performance of Jane Horrocks. About the only slight misstep comes from Clank and Bobble, voiced by veteran voice actors Jeff Bennett and Rob Paulsen. This Laurel and Hardy pair are mostly here for slapstick comic relief which sticks out a bit more than it really should. However, even they have their moments — it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself empathizing with these two knuckleheads when Tinker Bell insults tinkering, resulting in severe bruised feelings that are communicated entirely through wonderfully realized animated body language.
The skill evident in animating Clank and Bobble brings us to the CGI animation for Tinker Bell, which is dazzling right from the opening sequence of extended tracking shots that trace the path a dandelion seed from a beautifully realized Victorian-era London all the way Neverland’s Pixie Hollow. Flying sequences like this one and the one that close out the movie are easily some of the best parts of the movie. Like many similar sequences in Hayao Miyazaki movies, these scenes are when Tinker Bell literally and metaphorically defies gravity to become truly magical. However, the animation is also excellent at bringing across the more earth-bound and mundane portions of the movie as well. From the smallest elements of fairy body language to the glittering shower of pixie dust that heralds Queen Clarion’s appearance to a vivid and destructive stampede of sprinting thistles, the animation of Tinker Bell is top-notch, feature film quality. The relatively small team in the credits is also a bit surprising, compared to the cast of thousands that appear in the credits for movies like WALL-E or Kung Fu Panda. Due praise must also be given to the light and airy Celtic-inspired soundtrack by Joel McNeely, which feels entirely appropriate for the fairies’ world.
The DVD presents the movie beautifully with an anamorphic widescreen presentation, but the Blu-ray disc is absolutely breathtaking, fully exploiting the added resolution of the 1080p video to present the minutiae of nature and Pixie Hollow in eye-popping glory. If you have the equipment to support it, the Blu-ray disc is definitely the version of choice. Both come with a richly detailed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, with the Blu-ray adding an uncompressed 5.1 soundtrack as well. The nicely thorough set of extras are identical, although the Blu-ray offers all of them in full 1080p high definition. The “Magical Guide to Pixie Hollow” lightly animates pre-production artwork and art from the Disney Fairy books for a tour of Pixie Hollow, led by Tinker Bell and Queen Clarion. In addition to showcasing some very attractive artwork, this featurette also hints at the broader world the follow-up movies will no doubt explore. The “Tinker Trainer” is a DVD game accessible via DVD-ROM on the DVD and directly on the Blu-ray, and isn’t any better or worse than the usual time wasters that appear on Disney home video releases. “Ever Wonder” is a rather pointless live-action short film that claims to show how fairies “put the ‘Wonder’ in Natural Wonders,” as if science education isn’t bad enough these days. Rather than explaining the real science behind natural phenomena, we get cheesy pseudo-magic done via cheap special effects. A music video for the closing theme “Fly to Your Heart” lets singer Selena Gomez play around a bit with wire work. “Creating Pixie Hollow” is an informative behind-the-scenes featurette, although some of the comments about exploring nature from a never-before-seen perspective will ring a bit hollow to anybody who’s ever heard Pixar animators making similar comments about A Bug’s Life. There are also a handful of deleted scenes, which come with introductory comments from Raymond and Roussel. Oddly, even though they’re advertised on the packaging, the DVD makes it easy to miss these last two features by hiding them off the “Bonus Features” menu (keep hitting the “right” button on your remote until the “To the Mainland” link appears). The Blu-ray disc’s much more sensible menu layout has no such problem. The only Blu-ray exclusive special feature is BD Live, which was not active before the disc’s release date. Even so, I have to admit that BD Live is not a feature that holds much interest to me. If I’m watching a movie, I want to watch the movie, not play trivia games and chat with the minority of people who are watching at exactly the same time and can even get the feature to work.
It’s no secret that Disney has a lot of money riding on Tinker Bell and the Disney Fairies franchise. At the time, it also seemed quite daring for Disney to commit to three sequels well before this movie hit store shelves, especially considering the rumors about the movie’s troubled development and the embarrassment of missing its target release date by a year. However, it’s worth pointing out that the production of Toy Story 2 was an outright nightmare according to many of the people involved. Like that movie, Tinker Bell shows absolutely no signs of its difficult birthing, being quite successful as a movie over and above whatever requirements it may have as a merchandising tool. A trailer for the first sequel, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, appears on the DVD and the Blu-ray, showcasing even more boy-friendly high adventure elements while maintaining the charm and appeal of its predecessor. If it’s anywhere near as good as its predecessor, it will definitely be something to look forward to come fall 2009.
All images © Disney. All rights reserved. Images are presented in standard-definition resolution and do not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray disc.