This is a big title for Disney, billed in press releases and teasers as the first time we hear Tinker Bell's voice. So here's your first "Tinker Bell" quiz: is that voice provided by a) Lucy Liu, b) Raven-Symoné, c) America Ferrera, d) Kristin Chenoweth, e) Anjelica Huston, or d) Mae Whitman?
The answer is Whitman, who gave voice to Shanti in "The Jungle Book 2" and Leslie in "Teacher's Pet." But the other actresses also play fairies in this Disney direct-to-home-video release. Liu is Silvermist, Raven-Symoné is Iridessa, Ferrera is Fawn, Chenoweth is Rosetta, and Huston is Queen Clarion.
John Lasseter, who's oversees all things Disney animated these days, says on one of the bonus features that they did their homework. Animators studied nature, they studied the original J.M. Barrie "Peter Pan," and they studied the 1953 Disney film version. But they cheated a bit on characterization. For one thing, obviously, they invented not only Pixie Hollow, the place where Tink came from, but an entire history for one of Disney's most beloved minor Disney characters. Yes, minor. But the challenge and the fun was to make her major, and the Disney crew does a pretty good job. Faithful to the original, though, she's not.
The promo "bio" on Tinker Bell says, and I quote, "She is spirited, rebellious, impatient, determined and persistent . . . yet, always charming and loveable. She has a talent for tinkering, and when she is called on to save the day, "Tink" discovers the importance of her own true talents." Fair enough. But they forgot "possessive," "jealous," and "ruthless." This character got a bit of a whitewash once she got top billing; then again, it is an election year, and reinventing oneself seems to be a national sport. Still, I can't help but think of that 1953 classic in which a furiously jealous Tink tries to have poor Wendy Darling killed, simply because she was a female to whom Peter Pan had taken a liking. This Tinker Bell bears no resemblance to that tantrum-prone fairy.
With "Tinker Bell," I expected an origin story--something that would explain where Tink came from, how her personality developed, and how she and Peter Pan got to be so tight. How is it, for example, that a single fairy comes to take up residence in Peter Pan's little corner of Neverland? Maybe that will come in one of the other Tinker Bell movies, since Disney announced four Tinker Bell titles would be released as a series. And trust me, it won't stop there. Up next is "Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure," which is slated for Fall 2009 release. Presumably, all of them will take place in Pixie Hollow, a section of Neverland. And for your second quiz, which of the following is NOT a part of Pixie Hollow: a) Tinker's Nook, b) Silverbell Lane, c) Pixie Dust Tree, or d) Sunflower Meadow? The answer is "b," but there are so many cutesy names for places that they all seem plausible.
As I watched "Tinker Bell," the first thing I noticed was almost a given: Disney's first-rate 3-D CGI animation, which is stunning as usual. Then I started getting a feeling of déjà vu, and not because of the 1953 Disney classic in which we all first saw Tinker Bell, who's since been spreading her pixie dust all over our TV screens at the start of every "Wonderful World of Disney" show and every Disney DVD and Blu-ray release. "Tinker Bell" felt to me like a derivative of "Barbie: Fairytopia," "The Little Mermaid," and "A Bug's Life," with an identity crisis thrown in for good measure.
Like any society, Pixie Hollow has a hierarchy. Everyone has his or her place except for poor Tink, who was recently born (fully grown) into their midst. She's so new that she doesn't know what type of fairy she is. Some are flower fairies, some are animal fairies, some help each of the four seasons come each year, and some are tinkers, who invent and repair things. Of course, anyone who can associate the name "Tinker Bell" with "tinker" knows where this is headed, so we're not exactly dealing with a suspenseful plot. But we watch as Tinker Bell, like Ariel, shows an attraction for things humans lost or discarded. We watch as Tinker Bell, like Flick, tries invention after invention with no success, and is ridiculed for her trouble. And we watch as Tinker Bell, like the main fairy in "Barbie Fairytopia," is tormented by the others because she comes up wanting. Like all of them, Tinker Bell gets her day of vindication, though by the time this is over we're still left wondering how in the world she hooks up with Peter Pan, who makes nary an entrance. Wendy peeks in on the periphery, and we get a flyover London, Pixie-style, but that's as close as we get to the 1953 animated classic.
Is it any good? Well, the animation blows away the "Barbie" fairy series, from the fluttering fairy wings to the "Ratatouille"-style control that Tink exerts on a cute little mouse she rides like a cowgirl. And in truth, the film is one that little girls especially will find absolutely enthralling. Boys? Not so much. Other than a couple of goofy tinkers and some ministers of seasons, there aren't any male characters to interest young males. And adults certainly aren't part of the target audience. Walt Disney had the idea that family shows should appeal to adults too, and while theatrical releases have aimed for that lofty goal, that hasn't been the case with direct-to-home-video. The animation is certainly something to savor, but I can't say that the facile plot is anything that will hold an adult's attention. This is something to watch with your little girl, and for that purpose there are far worse movies for adults than "Tinker Bell." What makes it palatable for adults is oddly enough the same thing that limits the film: those familiar tropes from "A Bug's Life" and "The Little Mermaid," and the underlying promise that we might learn something about Tinker Bell that will help us better appreciate "Peter Pan."
"Tinker Bell" looks superb in 1080p, presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and transferred to a BD-50 disc using AVC/MPEG-4 technology. Colors are cheery, with full saturation, and the animation is a pleasing combination of rounded faces and small objects rendered convincingly large through the use of precise detail and sharp edges. As I said, "Tinker Bell" may be about fairies, but in terms of animation and picture quality it blows the Barbie fairy movies out of the water. Make that "Havendish stream."
The audio is also stellar, a robust English 5.1 PCM uncompressed (48kHz/24-bit) soundtrack that really has a striking clarity channels a lot of ambient sound and effects action to the rear speakers, but it does so in an unobtrusive way.
There's no commentary track, and as if to further confirm that the audience is young ones, the longest feature is "Creating Pixie Hollow"--around 10 minutes. Here's where Lasseter & Co. talk about the research they did and what they were trying to achieve, and darned if in the span of 10 minutes they aren't able to make you appreciate this more. There are 10 and a half minutes of deleted scenes-six of them-with director Bradley Raymond ("Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World," "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame II") and producer Jeannine Roussel telling why they were cut. There's an "Ever Wonder-Discover How Fairies Put the 'Wonder' in Natural Wonders" four-minute clip that seems cut from "Creating Pixie Hollow," an all-new music video performed by "Wizards of Waverly Place" star Selena Gomez, and a complicated three-tiered game, "Tinker Trainer."
To play "Tinker Trainer" is to rethink who the target audience is for this release. Phase one asks gamers to fly over lost things in a forest and press the number on the keypad that corresponds to the number on the object. You're shown several objects to find, but the thing of it is, you zip by so quickly it's tough to press ANY number key, and those darned numbers keep changing. One minute a thimble is a 6, and the next minute it's a 4. I can't imagine young children playing this and not getting frustrated. The second-stage counting game is ironically SLIGHTLY easier. Players are asked to count three containers as three separate "pours" go into them, and you're to remember how many of a given object made it into each of the three containers. This also moves pretty quickly, and it's going to take a lot of practice (and patience) for little ones to manage. Then there's the whole notion of using an abacus. Yes, an abacus. In this digital age, kids are being asked to use their remote to shift beads on an abacus to one side in order to record their tallies. On the one hand it's retro-cool; on the other hand, it's probably going to strike some kids as foreign. The third stage in this game asks kids to find pieces and assemble a puzzle. It's again, ironically, easier than the previous level, rather than the difficulty level rising every time. The positive is that the game is sufficiently difficult so that kids won't get bored with it . . . if, that is, they don't get angry or frustrated.
BD-Live features are so new that no one really knows what to do with them yet. Early attempts were just commercial-style downloads, but when the BD-Live features go "live" on October 28, family members and long-distance friends will be able to communicate together over this movie and players can win prizes. So we're finally getting past the free wallpaper stage.
"Tinker Bell" might not be as magical as some of the best Disney theatrical releases, and it follows a number of recognizable formulas. But it's still entertaining, largely because of some fantastic CGI animation and just enough film allusions (or "borrowings") to make it interesting. This one is mostly for little girls, but it looks pretty awesome in Blu-ray, which is almost a good enough excuse to buy it. For a kids' movie, it's probably an 8. But for a family film that adults could also appreciate, it's more a 6. That puts it in the 7 range, overall.