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Pixie gets star role as vault dust flies

Disney casts an old favorite as its lead character in building a Fairies franchise.

August 04, 2008|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

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 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."

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