When I first heard about the Tinker Bell films, my reaction could be summed up in one word, and that word was ‘snooty’. “Another cynical attempt by Disney to cash in on a popular classic,” I thought, flipping pretentiously through my copy of Peter Pan. “A complete bastardisation of the original material, no doubt. Taking a deliciously sinister story (albeit one that contains a lot of racism and colonialism that shouldn’t be ignored) and dressing it up in pink and sparkles.”
I should always check myself when I think things like this, because I am always, always wrong. Today I’ll be writing about How I Learned to Stop Being a Giant Snob and Love Tinker Bell.
Two things made me give the Tinker Bell films a chance. One was the release of the fifth film in the franchise, The Pirate Fairy, which was intriguing not only because I’ve written about pirate faeries in the past, but because it featured a certain actor of whom I’m rather fond as the voice of Captain Hook.
The second was seeing the film mentioned on one of the many feminist Facebook pages I follow, by someone enthusing over the character of Tinker Bell herself as being ‘femme and an engineer!’
“Is this true?” I thought. “Have they actually made Tinker Bell a tinker, like in the play and the books?”
Despite having absolutely no practical skills myself, I’m a sucker for stories with engineer heroines. The Circle of Magic’s Daja, A Series of Unfortunate Event’s Violet, and Firefly’s Kaylee are among my favourite characters of all time. It’s no accident that my own heroine, Lizzie, is constantly messing around with machines.
“Maybe Lizzie would have watched the Tinker Bell films as a kid,” I thought. “Maybe I should give them a go.”
And it wasn’t as if I’d be going out of my way. The first Tinker Bell film was right there on Netflix. So I got myself a cup of tea and settled down to watch.
The first ten minutes was exactly what I was expecting. A schmaltzy song, a glittery-sparkly-twee-little-fairies setup, the introduction of a gratuitous antagonist (you can tell from the moment Vidia sneers at Tinker Bell that she’s going to be horrible for no good reason). I was nearly ready to switch off.
And then, along came the tinkers.
This is the point where I realised that these characters were going to be good. Clank and Bobble could so easily have been lazy comic relief – a pair of bumbling losers who add nothing to the plot. But, while they’re both slightly blundering at times, they break the mould by actually being very good at their jobs. They take Tink to Tinker’s Hollow, introduce her to Fairy Merry – a woman as head engineer! How often do you see that in any story? – and the three of them start work. And, as the random Facebook commenter had promised, Tinker Bell’s femininity* and her skill at engineering are presented as equally valid parts of her, with no suggestion that these two things shouldn’t go together.
The other fairies are equally interesting. Their different magical ‘talents’, which could easily have been played as a gimmick, are in fact…well, talents. Something to be proud of, but which doesn’t wholly define them as a person. Tink’s new friends are soon revealed to be well-rounded, developed characters with flaws, fears and personalities. (The only exception at this point is Vidia, who still appears to be mean just for the sake of it. Don’t worry, she gets better).
In the first film, Tink makes mistakes, rights them, and learns to be proud of her talent for engineering. I loved this message, particularly in a film aimed at little girls, who are often socialised not to show off or take a leading role. Tink doesn’t only show off her skills – being up front about what she’s good at, and directing the other fairies to build the machines she’s designed, is what saves the day.
This is another thing I loved about the films. Sometimes the messages are a little trite – ‘be true to yourself’, or ‘love your friends and your family’. But just because they’re trite doesn’t mean they’re not important. Besides, the message of the second film is different, and beautifully blunt: ‘Stop blaming other people, and take some goddamn responsibility for your own mistakes’.
Often, the quality of a franchise decreases in proportion to the number of films it contains. The Tinker Bell films, though, have consistently great writing, sharp humour, and some brilliant voice acting (Lucy Liu! Kristen Chenoweth!).
And rather than ignoring the source material, the films constantly hark back to Peter Pan – not just the Disney version, but the original novel and play. After binge-watching the first four films (I bought the box set, and I’m not remotely embarrassed to admit it), I reached the one I was looking forward to most of all – The Pirate Fairy.
The other films had contained little nods to Barrie’s work (Tinker Bell as an actual tinker, a cameo from Wendy). The Pirate Fairy, however, was peppered with references and in-jokes – my absolute favourite being Hook’s offhand comment that a fairy ‘couldn’t hope to compete with an Eton education like mine’.
Past Ally wasn’t just snooty, she was missing out. The Tinker Bell films are a joy to watch. In fact, the only thing that bothers me is this. The Pirate Fairy is, to a certain extent, an origin story for Captain Hook. If the films are going to continue this trend, and eventually retell Peter Pan from Tinker Bell’s point of view, how are they going to square the Pan version of Tink with the character they’ve established in her own films?
The Disney Fairies version of Tinker Bell is a plucky hothead who makes mistakes and often acts without thinking, but is, when it comes down to it, a kind, caring, friendly person. The Peter Pan Tinker Bell is a possessive manipulator who leads the pirates to the Lost Boys and attempts to have Wendy killed. What’s going to cause such a sudden change? I’m hoping it’ll be some kind of terrible personality-swapping pixie-dust accident, because the idea of this Tink plotting murder is deeply disturbing.
I have faith, though, that they’ll manage to tinker up a great solution.
*NB: I really hate the words ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ as descriptions of clothing styles, appearance, hobbies, or anything like that – none of those things have anything to do with gender! – but I always struggle to find alternative words. If anyone has any suggestions, please post them in the comments!
Spider Circus, Ally’s story of budding engineer Lizzie, is available at Amazon and Smashwords, and her stories about pirate faeries can be found at Footloose. She rambles about food on Twitter and posts writing updates at Facebook.