11 July 2013

DISNEY SEQUELS: TINKERING WITH SUCCESS

Tinker Bell, the 2008 video debut of the Disney Fairies brand, turned out to be... not exactly good, but a whole hell of a lot better than you'd have any good reason to believe it was going to be. And it was good in ways that argued well for its immediately forthcoming follow-up (you don't start to roll out a new brand unless you're ready to roll out a brand), given that the worst problems with Tinker Bell, besides the eerie, alienating, plasticine look of the humanoid characters were largely related to its crude world-building in keeping with being a Tinker Bell origin story. Sure enough, 2009's Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, which is also not exactly good, is even better still than you'd have any reason to believe, having sloughed off the most annoying elements of the first movie and replacing them with... nothing, actually. But the less of the inane side characters that one has to deal with, the better.

I can't quite pull the trigger on calling it a great sequel, because it's not that, exactly. It's more like a later episode of a TV series where they had to cleverly write around the absence of several main actors, because the most noticeable shift between Lost Treasure and Tinker Bell is that the later film jettisons virtually all of the characters and situations which the first one set up (making it even more than usually annoying as an origin story). Sure, Tinker Bell's (Mae Whitman) carefully diverse set of fairy friends still appear, but it would be an indignity to the word "cameo" to suggest that they have such a lofty presence in the story as that (designated frenemy Vidia doesn't even speak). This is not that disappointing, because they all kind of sucked in the first movie, more from an animation standpoint than a narrative one, but still: that's a lot of vinyl-looking faces distinguished only by skin tone that we don't have to pay attention to now. Better yet, Tinker Bell's hideously wacky colleagues in the tinker fairy workshops, Bobble (Rob Paulsen) and Clank (Jeff Bennett) are only slightly more present than the BFF fairies, and far less than their annoying role in the first movie.

Replacing all these as the film's designated secondary character is a generically cute teen boy fairy named Terence - seriously? "Clank" and "Iridessa" and "Queen Clarion" and Terence? - voiced by kidpop star Jesse McCartney, which is all I would ordinarily need to write him off; it was, anyway, all I needed to write him off during his 90-second appearance in the middle of Tinker Bell. But he ends up working reasonably well within the new movie's limited need for him, and I am profoundly grateful, and more than a little surprised, that outside of an early scene where he gets teased, the film doesn't seriously consider the possibility of romantic tension between him and Tinker Bell (which, given that the fairies don't reproduce sexually, is a good choice on story logic grounds, in addition to aesthetic ones).

The film is largely a Tinker Bell Alone sort of thing, which ends up being very much to its benefit. The plot - for there is a plot, but it's so utterly MacGuffin-besotted that it almost doesn't count - concerns the first autumn of the titular fairy's life, in which a lot of specific but entirely arbitrary mythology goes into building the scenario that of all the fairies in Pixie Hollow, Tinker Bell, the Chosen One of all the tinker fairies, has the fate of the entire fairy society in her hands. Because there is a once-every-eight-years ceremony to rejuvenate the tree that gives all the fairies pixie dust, and it happens at the start of autumn, and I swear I actually did have positive feelings about this movie when I was done watching it, but reading back the sentence I just wrote, I have forgotten why. Suffice it to say that there's a magic stone that Tinker Bell has been given to protect, and if it breaks, no more pixie dust. She breaks it.

Actually, it doesn't happen quite that quickly, and one of the things that works best about Lost Treasure is its relative complexity in getting to that point. Terence, eager to prove himself Tinker Bell's best friend, decides to help her out by acting as her Man Friday around the workshop. After a month of this, she's sick and tired of his hovering presence, and sends him out on a random mission to find an arbitrary part. Alas! he finds one too quickly, returning before she has a chance to wind down, and they have a spat. And it's not even the result of this spat, but of Tinker Bell's distracted mindset after, that the magic stone breaks. The film admirably refrains from making this a clear-cut situation in which certain attitudes are praised and others are vilified; it's not August Strindberg's Pixie Fun Hour, certainly, but for a Disney picture, it's dumbfounding how much of a grey area all of this plays out in.

The lost treasure of the title now comes into play: there was, long ago, a fairy mirror stolen by pirates (for whom it must have been the size of a flake of dandruff), and it could grant wishes. It had one wish left in it when it was lost on a distant island, and Tinker Bell immediately grasps that this is the only way to restore the magic stone. Thus she and a friendly firefly named Blaze - a blessedly mute one (though with vocalisations by Eliza Pollack Zebert), sparing us the series' tendency towards awful comic characters - hop on a balloon made of cotton blossoms and some last precious pixie dust (isn't the implication in Peter Pan - Disney's or any other iteration - that Tinker Bell generates pixie dust herself? Ah, well), and travel across the sea to find a land of Adventure! where there are trolls and rats and all. Surprisingly terrifying rats, for a franchise aimed at pre-teen girls.

Tink fails in her mission, dooming the fairy society to a slow fading into ethereal nothingness. As the youngest, she is the last to die, and that's why she's alone - but driven to insane rages of jealous fury, having literally gone mad - when Peter Pan arrives in Never Land.

No, but don't you kind of wish? Actually, she does fail in what she things was her mission, but she comes up with another solution that works even better. Two films into the Disney Fairies franchise now, I think I can start making some generalisations: and they are that the Fairy stories have an appealing thematic complexity for a company whose stock in trade are films that inform girls that what is best in life is to wear pink, by cheap plastic tea sets, and marry into royalty. Tinker Bell relates the moral, "you can't be anything you want, but of the things you can be, it's still worth being the absolute best possible". Lost Treasure isn't quite as brazenly un-Disney as that: but its message that sometimes, plans just don't work out, and that's okay, because you can simply make new plans that do the best with what you have is still pragmatic and wise far beyond the vast majority of things that company would like to sell to children (the more overtly announced theme, that you shouldn't give up your friends too easily just because of a little fight, is pleasant, but boilerplate). If I didn't know where the next one went, I'd even say that I admired the darned things. Still, opening up with a two-for-two track record on providing useful life lessons to children is practically unprecedented in Disney.

Add that to the honestly unusual narrative structure, which abruptly shifts the focus of the plot two-fifths of the way in, and changes a character comedy into an adventure film without ever abandoning the core lessons about friendship and responsibility, and hell, you've got a for-real movie going on.

Almost. I hate to be the snobby animation nitpicker, but the chief problem with Tinker Bell has not been solved in Lost Treasure: it looks kind of terrible. Not from a lighting/color/design standpoint, where it remains painterly and brilliant (it is, if I may be so bold, closer to the "animated oil painting" aesthetic we were at first promised with Tangled than Tangled itself.

It's the characters, is all. Same models, same basic movements as the last one; it would be a shock if they weren't as unpleasant to look at in exactly the same ways, even with Tinker Bell's new autumnwear, covering up her shapely thighs for the first time in the history of this character in animated movies for children.

I'm not going to belabor it, what with one movie already reviewed and three on the way, but it's simply not good. Look at Tinker Bell's eyes - this is not a shot where she's in the middle of blinking:

What's happening? WHY ARE HER EYES SO DROOPY? Does she have allergies? Is she tired? Is she baked out of her mind? AND WHY IS HER HAIR ONE PIECE OF VINYL?

But at least that slick-looking inorganic monstrosity finds herself in the middle of a really nifty story this time; and Mae Whitman grew into the role a whole lot in just one year, sounding like a legitimate character and not a snotty 21st Century teen girl plopped into an Edwardian fantasy world. It's not perfect, but for DisneyToon Studios, it's downright sturdy and functional and appealing. Hell, it's like I barely have anything to complain about at all.

3 comments:

Mr. Blackwell said...

"Seriously? 'Clank' and 'Iridessa' and 'Queen Clarion' and Terence?"

Sounds like a classic case of Aerith and Bob!

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AerithAndBob

Brian said...

As a fair warning to anyone about to click Mr. Blackwell's link and is not aware:

TVTropes is the Sirens call of the internet. It is nearly impossible to escape, and leads to a tab explosion on your browser. Forewarned is forearmed.

Trish said...

True, the animation is blah, but the surprisingly complicated writing you've mentioned is the reason why I've been happily cheerleading for the Tinkerbell movies.

Or, more accurately, for two out of the three Tink features. Because it is such a genuine God-damn shame that the third one exists as it does. Hell, the most recent one does far less damage, and that's the one with the shameless retcon just to introduce a highly marketable new character!