Disney gives Tinker Bell a
Dawn C. Chmielewski
Los Angeles Times
Tinker Bell, after many decades with no lines, is
finally getting 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
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
"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
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
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
"It's really dangerous," Lindstrom said. "The big
challenge Disney has is to change it on one hand, so it
becomes more modern and appealing for the next
generation, but on the other hand they're almost
changing a religion. They can very easily trip and fall
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
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
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
"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."