The Pirate Fairy
Directed by Peggy Holmes
I’m not typically fond of reviews in which the writer says, in effect, “This movie wasn’t made for me,” mostly because it seems like a way in which to award something a potentially undeserved free pass. This claim frequently crops up in reviews of family films or animation that’s targeted at kids before adults. Really, the problem stems from an attitude at places like the Walt Disney Company, where executives presume that appealing to everyone matters less if you can focus entirely on a subset of people. The best that Disney animation has to offer (though this applies to animation and family films from any studio) aims to please everyone, not just little boys or little girls. I don’t mean to suggest that saying Movie X wasn’t made for you (the general “you”) is always false or inaccurate, but it’s maybe more helpful to explore why that’s the case instead of simply stating it and moving on.
However. (You knew there’d be a “however.”) I mention this because I’m about to prove, once more, how much of a big, honking hypocrite I am. On April Fools’ Day, of all days, the newest entry in the ever-expanding Tinker Bell series of direct-to-DVD and Blu-ray features is available in stores and online. It’s called The Pirate Fairy, and guess what? This movie wasn’t made for me. (See? I’m a hypocrite.) And, let’s be honest, none of the Tinker Bell movies are targeted at a 29-year old white guy, no matter how much of an animation or Disney junkie he may be. Now, frankly, I’d argue that this is a problem, but one that’s not terribly shocking. The arm of the Walt Disney Company that produces direct-to-DVD and Blu-ray animated movies, DisneyToon Studios, hasn’t pleasantly surprised me very often; right now, I would say the best film they’ve made was Aladdin and the Prince of Thieves, the final entry in the Aladdin trilogy, and I haven’t seen it in nearly 15 years. So maybe I’m wrong. The point, though, is simple: DisneyToon Studios doesn’t aim to please all four quadrants, to put it in financial terms. DisneyToon Studios aims to please one very specific audience with each of their movies, whether it’s The Pirate Fairy or Planes. (I, for one, cannot wait for the impending release of 2 Planes 2 Furious this summer. I’m counting down the hours.)
Each of the Tinker Bell films—The Pirate Fairy is only the second I’ve seen, so I admit to presuming slightly here—is targeted at little girls, those who would dream of living in the magical Pixie Hollow with fairies like Tinker Bell as well as her friends. (If their parents bring them to Disneyland, these same little girls can spend a brief moment or two meeting and greeting these fairies, because of course.) This, in spite of the fact that Peter Pan appeals to a slightly wider audience, or at least doesn’t attempt to ignore the majority of the crowd in favor of one subsection. Granted, as I’ve stated before, Peter Pan is a massively troubling depiction of both masculinity and femininity; The Pirate Fairy, at least, isn’t remotely as offensive. (There’s a pull quote for you: “The Pirate Fairy is completely inoffensive!”) But it also clearly has no interest in appealing to anyone aside from those children who already idolize the iconic Tinker Bell.
What makes The Pirate Fairy slightly more intriguing than its predecessors, at least in discussing if not watching the film, is that it begins to close the gap between Tinker Bell’s origin story and the tale of Wendy Darling and her brothers traveling to Never Land to fight the nefarious Captain Hook with their friend Peter Pan. The basic plot of this film doesn’t exactly bring us to the point where Tinker Bell meets Peter, but we do meet the great villain himself, Captain Hook, for the first time. The title character of The Pirate Fairy, in fact, isn’t Tinker Bell, but a Dust Keeper fairy called Zarina whose inquisitive nature serves to alienate her from the other fairies. (Basically, Zarina is a scientist who lives in a fantastical world that apparently doesn’t desire serious scientific study or experimentation, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but let’s move on.) One day, Zarina’s curiosity gets the better of her, and she winds up being labeled an outcast for having tinkered where she shouldn’t have tinkered: with the Blue Dust, which helps create pixie dust, which is the most important dust of all, as I’m sure you’re all aware. A year passes—Is a year for fairies the same as a year for humans? Do they age similarly, or is this like the way that dogs age? Do fairies actually age? Please answer each of these questions in at least 500 words.—and then, during a seasonal ceremony, Zarina returns, puts most of the fairies in Pixie Hollow to sleep, and absconds with the Blue Dust to parts unknown. Tinker Bell and her friends, the ones who didn’t fall asleep, chase after her and are shocked to see that Zarina is now the captain of a crew of human pirates, including an obsequious cabin boy named James. Could it be that James and his fellow pirates have evil plans in store for Zarina? Will Tinker Bell and her friends be able to save the day? Will I end this paragraph with a question?
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that James is a young Captain Hook, though he still has both of his hands by the end of the picture. If The Pirate Fairy gains a larger audience than, say, the 7-year old girls of the world, it may be in part thanks to the casting of Tom Hiddleston as Captain Hook. Though, let’s be fair, this movie’s cast is fairly impressive in general: Mae Whitman, Lucy Liu, Megan Hilty, Raven-Symone, Anjelica Huston, and, as Zarina, Christina Hendricks of Mad Men. But let’s talk about Tom Hiddleston for a minute or two. Over the last few years, he’s risen to a level of stardom in part because of his well-placed role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the trickster god Loki, and in part because he legitimately seems to be enjoying himself in all related aspects of fame. This extends, amazingly, to his work in The Pirate Fairy. I will admit that I wondered, if not worried, that Hiddleston’s contribution here would be as rote as most celebrity performances in modern mainstream animation. There are innumerable characters in animated films throughout the last decade wherein the performer–cast entirely because they are famous and hopefully will inspire more people to buy tickets–phones it in because voice work is an easy paycheck.
Tom Hiddleston may secretly view this work as an easy paycheck—and, honestly, I wouldn’t blame him—but there’s no evidence of him half-assing his work, even if The Pirate Fairy in whole is fairly half-assed. One of the few special features on the Blu-ray release, ostensibly about the creation and performance of the song “The Frigate That Flies,” almost squarely focuses on Hiddleston’s work in the recording booth. As I watched this short featurette, all I kept thinking was, “Man, I really hope this guy gets to do another animated film, and right quick.” As I watched the actual film, I couldn’t help but echo the same question that my wife, passing through the living room at one point, asked with a tone of helpless confusion: “Why is Tom Hiddleston in this movie?” And really, why is he in this movie? I can’t imagine the paycheck was that hefty, and it’s not as if the Tinker Bell series by itself has a sterling reputation. (Also, unless I’m wrong, Hiddleston doesn’t have children, so this wasn’t a case of him making a movie his kids could watch.) I suppose it could’ve been the pull of giving voice to one of the most memorable villains in literature, but I hope that someone at Disney casts Hiddleston in some other, more prestigious voice role soon. He, unlike many celebrities at the apex of their stardom, appears to enjoy the challenge of voice work, first by acknowledging that voice work is a challenge.
Hiddleston is, as you might expect, the most interesting thing about The Pirate Fairy, even if he’s only in roughly 35 minutes of the film. The other special features–including a jokey “croc-umentary” about crocodiles, which ties into the introduction of Hook’s other nemesis; and a handful of deleted scenes–aren’t terribly illuminating. Of course, I do wonder why the deleted scenes were ever cut, seeing as this thing is barely 70 minutes long without the end credits. I appreciate that little kids aren’t going to stay still for a super-long animated movie, but the deleted scenes, without the director and producer introductions, are roughly 5 minutes, combined. I’m not saying I wish these scenes were in the finished product, but frankly, some of that finished product seems as tossed-off and unnecessary as what got cut.
But again, as I stated at the top, The Pirate Fairy is not for me. If you’ve seen the other films, you should know what to expect. If you’ve got kids who love these movies, I imagine that they’ll be pleased with this new entry, because it feels just like more of the same: simplistic, low-key, goofy, and fairly uninspired. (Regarding the animation, a quick word: the character design is arguably improved from the hand-drawn animated DTV features that DisneyToon Studios made in the late 1990s, but there’s a flatness to the faces and eyes, a lack of life throughout. We aren’t exactly approaching the uncanny valley, but I found myself slightly put off by the characters’ undefined facial features.) At this point, the best thing I can say about this film is that it didn’t bother me. I’ve seen far better animated films, but for DisneyToon Studios, making something that’s content being forgettable instead of painful is something of a win. I wonder, granted, if my opinion on The Pirate Fairy as well as the Tinker Bell series might change over time; my wife is currently four months pregnant with our first child. Maybe that child will be a girl, and maybe that girl will one day want to be like Tinker Bell. And maybe I’ll…well, I’ll still only tolerate movies like this if that child is old enough to watch and enjoy them. But I might appreciate this series just a wee bit more. If only The Pirate Fairy and its ilk was aimed at more than just the extremely young in every family.
— Josh Spiegel