Part of a brand worth nearly half a billion dollars, this latest animated Tinker Bell film features the voice of Tom Hiddleston as pirate-in-training, and a sextet of spunky heroines.
Released theatrically in the US on April 1, 2014, Tinker Bell and Pirate Fairy is an engaging, thoughtfully executed animated work that’s earned over $8m in Britain theatrically since its Valentine’s Day premiere in the U.K., and another four or five million in a handful of other foreign territories. That’s chump change when compared to the earnings of, say, Disney’s own Frozen or The Lego Movie, or even Mr. Peabody & Sherman whose recent underperformance may cause a write-down of DreamWorks Animation. Nevertheless, The Pirate Fairy is still a film worth noting given its quality, its feisty emphasis on female solidarity (it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors), and the fact that it features Tom Hiddleston as the voice of young Captain Hook, a character only marginally less scheming and evil than his Loki in Thor: The Dark World.
Moreover, as a brand, Tinker Bell keeps just getting bigger, which is pretty impressive given it began as a series of home-entertainment tie-in titles (there have been four features before this, plus a 21-minute short) that have never had more than limited theatrical exposure Stateside, although they’re shown in frequent rotation on Disney’s cable channels. If you believe this might be evidence of the waning centrality of four-wall exhibition and the rising power of the family demographic, clap your hands.
Tinker Bell started out as literally nothing more than a darting stage light in the original 1904 theatrical version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, who famously dies in the play and gets resurrected during each performance by applause from all those who believe in fairies. A hundred years later, powered by applause and the enduring love of fairy-besotted children worldwide, she’s squarely in the protagonist spotlight, and a lot nicer and smarter than the jealous sprite who tried to get Wendy killed in the 1953 film. But more importantly, Tink and her fairy friends are the anchors in a line of licensed entertainment character merchandise, Disney Fairies, which was valued at $435m in 2013. That’s a lot of DVDs, dolls and lunchboxes, and for comparison Disney Fairies is worth less than Disney Princess ($1.6 billion) or Star Wars ($1.5 billion), but more than Angry Birds ($250m) or Barbie ($242m).
For those not up to speed with the mythos built in the last four features (starting with Tinker Bell: A Fairy’s Tale from 2007), our six-inch-high heroine (voiced by Mae Whitman, who’s been with the franchise from the start) lives in Pixie Hollow, a fairy community where the division of labor is decided at birth when a fairy’s particular “talent” – be it for working with animals, plants or, in Tink’s case, making and fixing things– is unveiled. Having shared various adventures in the past, Tink is now close friends with five other fairies: Southern-accented garden fairy Rosetta (Megan Hilty), whose prissy ways provide much comic relief; water fairy Silvermist (Lucy Liu); animal fairy Fawn (Angela Bartys); light fairy Iridessa (Raven-Symone); and frequently sarky wind fairy Vidia (Pamela Adlon).
A new friend, Zarina (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men), works as a dustkeeper, helping with the production of the fairy dust that powers flight for fairies, people and objects alike. In her spare time, Zarina performs forbidden experiments with the rare blue dust that has strange, alchemical properties when mixed with other ingredients. But a lab-accident goes very wrong and Zarina leaves Pixie Hollow in disgrace, taking the blue dust with her.
Tinker Bell and five besties set off to retrieve blue dust, and during one confrontation, a dust-related incident manages to scramble the sextet’s talents, so that Vidia becomes a tinker fairy, Rosetta an animal fairy and so on. Soldiering on, they eventually track Zarina down and find that she’s become the captain of a band of pirates and had a makeover to give her a kick-ass swashbuckling look, complete with rock-star hair and thigh-high dominatrix boots. Among the crew is a scurvy cabin boy named James (Hiddleston) who has a secret agenda of his own. It’s only in the third act that the film reveals that James’ last name is Hook, but viewers savvy with Peter Pan, not to mention Disney’s Jake and the Neverland Pirates cable series, will figure out the connection early on, especially given the introduction of a baby crocodile into the story. Effectively, The Pirate Fairy is a Peter Pan prequel.
Director Peggy Holmes and producer Jenni Magee-Cook, heads of crew list that features a higher proportion of women’s names than most animated features, are clearly working with a much more modest budget compared Disney Animation’s other, top-tier productions. Even so, the craftsmanship standards are high here, from the CG-modelled animation, to the character expressions, to the musical choices and editing. John Lasseter himself takes an executive producer credit, and there is a Pixar-like attention to detail throughout. In fact, it’s rather better realized than the shoddy Cars tie-in Planes, but then again, the filmmakers had a much finer, more illustrious origin story to work with in the first place.