Disney gives Tinker Bell a starring role
Long one of the studio's most popular classic characters, but one always consigned to flitting in the background, Tinker Bell is being recast by Walt Disney Co. in the hope of launching a new billion-dollar Fairies franchise aimed at young girls.
"Tink" never spoke in Disney's 1953 "Peter Pan" movie — the few words she utters in creator J.M. Barrie's 1911 novel involve an un-Disneyish expletive. Her elevation to pantheon status, the studio is betting, will lead girls to a new online fairy virtual world in addition to spurring purchases of fairy-themed books, toys, lip gloss and stationery.
It begins, as do many Disney launches, with a movie: The spunky sprite will star in her own film, "Tinker Bell," due out on DVD on Oct. 28. The movie, remade under the supervision of Pixar Animation's creative force, John Lasseter, is the first of four planned home video releases that executives see as appealing to young girls who have outgrown princesses but are too young to be into tween idol Hannah Montana.
"I think Fairies has the potential to be as big as Princesses," said Andrew P. Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products.
The consumer products division had been rummaging through the studio's animation vault, searching for new merchandise possibilities, with an eye to repeating the surprising success of the Disney Princesses franchise. That pink-hued line of toys, clothing and other merchandise featuring eight heroines — which initially riled Disney traditionalists including Roy Disney, who felt it was an unorthodox blurring of the individual princess stories — is expected to generate worldwide retail sales in excess of $4 billion this year.
Tinker Bell's enduring appeal prompted Disney's consumer products unit to place her at the center of its next girls' franchise, in an attempt to capture slightly older girls who are no longer playing dress-up or living in a monochrome pink world.
One recent survey by Los Angeles marketing agency Davie Brown Entertainment shows Tinker Bell is more popular than Peter Pan and better known than such contemporary Pixar characters as Woody, the cowboy hero from "Toy Story," and the namesake clown fish from "Finding Nemo."
If merchandise sales serve as a barometer of popularity, Tinker Bell's been holding her own in Disney's parks and resorts. Tinker Bell paraphernalia and tchotchkes racked up $800 million in retail sales last year as consumers snapped up such items as miniature fairy dolls, bubble bath and bedding.
"We were fundamentally missing an opportunity in terms of getting Tinker Bell out there as a character," Mooney said. "There's clearly latent demand."
Mooney knew that the consumer products unit couldn't just float out Tinker Bell and her new fly pals as a merchandise collection without a new introduction. "We needed a back story," he said.
So Mooney approached Disney Publishing Worldwide in 2004 about taking the creative lead in developing a fresh narrative for Tinker Bell, just as it had provided a literary revival to another classic character, Peter Pan, in "Peter and the Starcatchers," a 2004 "prequel" to Barrie's classic, written by humorist Dave Barry and suspense writer Ridley Pearson.
Jeanne Mosure, who oversees global publishing for the Fairies books, said her group contacted Newbery Honor-winning author Gail Carson Levine about the project. Over lunch, editors presented paintings of nature scenes created as visual references for "Bambi," Disney's 1942 classic, along with fanciful original illustrations of fairies with acorn shoes. They talked about the idea of launching a book series based on the fairies of Never Land. One image in particular sparked Levine's imagination.
"They brought with them an illustration that had been used when they were working on the animated Bambi. It was a beautiful illustration of a dove," Levine said. "I fell in love with the dove."
Mother Dove would become a central character in Levine's 2005 book, "Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg," which tells the story of Tinker Bell and her world of Fairy Haven through the eyes of its newest arrival, Prilla. It spent 20 weeks on the New York Times' bestseller list, beginning in August 2005, and launched a literary franchise that has encompassed 200 titles and sold more than 12 million copies.
Levine nonetheless found it problematic to build a story around taciturn Tinker Bell.
"The only thing she says in Barrie is, 'Silly ass!' That's her line. And she tries to have Wendy killed a couple of times," Levine said. "But she also saves Peter. She drinks the poison to keep Peter from drinking it. I built on that, on her love for Peter, her loyalty, her courage. She is not, in my mind, a warm, fuzzy character."
The success of the Fairies books set the stage for Mooney to ask the studio about a direct-to-DVD release based on Tinker Bell's new exploits. Disney Home Entertainment was so enthusiastic that it took the unusual step of greenlighting four films at once.
"We really believe in this," said Bob Chapek, president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment Worldwide. "There's some heritage here; we're not grasping at straws."
Martin Lindstrom, a brand consultant and author of the forthcoming book "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy," said there were risks to updating any classic — be it messing with the recipe of Classic Coke or tinkering with parents' childhood memories of a beloved character.
Mooney acknowledged the risk but said both Levine and Lasseter, a onetime Disney animator, have been respectful of the classic works, even as they updated Tinker Bell's story.
The making of "Tinker Bell," the movie, was hardly an enchanted experience.
DisneyToon Studios, the division within Walt Disney Studios that handles nontheatrical animation for television and direct-to-video releases, struggled with the film, churning through several directors and an estimated $48-million budget. The script underwent at least 20 revisions. Early versions of the movie told a convoluted tale about Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, included fart jokes and turned Tinker Bell into a "brat," said a person familiar with the project.
Lasseter, who has been critical of Disney's direct-to-video sequels of classic characters because the quality of the stories and production usually pales in comparison with the originals, said the studio decided to "restart the story" to give the franchise a stronger launch.
Lasseter said he met with director Bradley Raymond and they brainstormed a new plot, one that would trace the origins of Tinker Bell and her Never Land home of Pixie Hollow and delve into the fairies' connection to — no harm in climbing on the green bandwagon — nature. It would explore their role in bringing about the change of seasons, such as awakening the flowers in spring, infusing autumn leaves with color, painting frost on windowpanes. It would also, naturally, set up the sequels.
"You know how kids at a certain age start looking out the window and ask questions that parents have an impossible time answering? Why do leaves turn colors? Why are there dew drops? Those kinds of things," Lasseter said. "This is the perfect answer for every parent: 'The fairies did it.' "
With "Tinker Bell" poised for DVD release, the rest of Disney's franchise machinery is rolling into action.
Disney Interactive Media Group is launching an online community this fall, where the children who have created more than 6 million fairies on the DisneyFairies.com website can enter a virtual version of Pixie Hollow to fly, interact with friends, play games and go on quests.
As with Disney's Club Penguin, the virtual world will be free to play in, with the option to upgrade to full access for a monthly subscription. A Disney Fairies: Tinker Bell game also goes on sale in the fall for the Nintendo DS hand-held console. At the same time, the consumer products group is ready to unveil an array of licensed products, including a line of Internet-connected toys called Clickables. The electronic jewelry can unlock special clothing or decor in the online world.
A girl also can create a message or a gift for a friend in the virtual world, save it to the eBracelet, then present it electronically by touching the band to a friend's. Disney typically collects a royalty of 6% to 12% of the retail price of such items.
Lasseter has also been tending to Tinker Bell's appearance at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Rather than have people in fairy costumes buzzing around the park and greeting guests, he's creating an outdoor greeting area lined with a pixie dust trail where people would visit Tink and her cohorts. The goal, Lasseter said, was to create "that sense of fantasy that you create in the film, that you want to bring alive in the parks and with the characters."
Whether Tinker Bell, who historically never had the throw-weight of some of Disney's central characters, can hold her own alongside the Princesses franchise is not a question Disney executives profess concern about. Tink's silence has been golden.
"It's staggering," Mooney said, "to think the character never spoke but still managed to create a bond with consumers of all ages."