The Mouse House Movie Club #2: Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue

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Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: Corn Chips, in which Donald Duck’s hankering for some popcorn is undone by pesky chipmunks Chip and Dale.
Feature Presentation: Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue, in which Tinkerbell’s caught by a kindly little girl and the other fairies need to come to her aid.

Corn Chips
Donald Duck is the greatest thing ever. This is fact. Scientific fact, proven by science and therefore utterly indisputable. 1951’s Corn Chips is an excellent stage for his talents because it’s so delightfully simply: Donald wants some popcorn, but so do Chip and Dale. Conflict ensues because, as ever, Donald is a selfish, egomaniacal, and often downright nasty character who could start a fight in an empty room. (And indeed has).

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Along with getting the very best out of Donald, Corn Chips showcases 1950s Disney animation at its very best. Here, Donald finds himself out in the country during winter, so there are some lovely snowy rural scenes, all captured with ’50s Disney’s sweeping romanticism. It’s not quite up there with, say, Lady and the Tramp, but it’s not far off, and for a short (with a significantly lower budget) that’s pretty darned impressive.

A significant jump forward from last week’s disappointing Pluto short, and a delight for anyone who loves manic Donald and beautiful background art.

Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue
Part of The Disney Review’s remit is to cover some of the lesser-known films – the live action features and the direct-to-video sequels and spin-offs. That’s what drew me to the Tinkerbell series, which I was familiar with having gone through it last year during a direct-to-video viewing marathon. So for the second entry in The Disney Review, I wanted to cover a Tinkerbell film, and opted for my favourite of the series, Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue.

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A new Tinkerbell
The Tinkerbell of the Disney Fairies series ain’t your Daddy’s Tinkerbell. And, with all respect to Peter Pan‘s rightfully iconic take on the character, that’s most definitely a good thing. For Walt, Tink was a mischievous imp who was jealous of Wendy and enjoyed causing trouble. There’s nothing wrong with that and it works tremendously well in the context of the film, but in Peter Pan, Tink is sidekick, not leading lady. In the Disney Fairies series, that’s reversed, and the impish Tink simply wouldn’t work. There’s not enough there to sustain one film, let alone a series of them.

So what we get here is a much more rounded Tinkerbell. There’s still a sense of mischief, but it’s filtered through a curiosity that’s part of her role as a tinker (a builder essentially) in fairy society. Tinkerbell finds fascination everywhere and is always looking to create or fix things. This leads her into the kind of trouble she’s most commonly known for, making the update typical of what the Disney Fairy series does so well: presenting Tinkerbell as we know her, but carefully and respectfully updating her.

E.T., but with fairies
The trouble she finds herself in here leads her into the path of a human, marking the first time fairies have come into contact with humans in the world of the film. The little girl in question is Lizzie, the daughter of a scientist who can’t find time for her and who doesn’t believe her fantastical stories because, well, there are no facts to back them up. She’s a lot like Tinkerbell – a creative soul whose imagination is often overlooked by those around her – and the two, of course, strike up a fast friendship.

The set-up isn’t particularly original, and certain scenes are highly reminiscent of E.T. (particularly those where Lizzie shows Tinkerbell around her room, showing off her numerous drawings of how she imagines fairies and their world look). But it’s a little churlish to criticise a direct to video children’s film for being a bit unoriginal, especially when the story is told as well as it is here. What Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in wit, charm, and flat out sweetness. Quite simply, it’s a lovely, tender film.

Many of the other Tinkerbell films are similarly warm (check out Secret of the Wings and Legend of the Neverbeast for proof), but what puts Great Fairy Rescue out in front is the B-story, which finds Tink’s fairy friends mounting a rescue mission (obviously; come on guys, the clue’s in the title). While most of the Fairy films feel (understandably) small in scale, the addition of this adventurous subplot gives Great Fairy Rescue a sense of grandeur and pleasing difference in tone. On the one hand, we have a sweet love story, and on the other we have a rollicking adventure.

It’s a wonderful blend that makes for a beautifully entertaining and touching film.

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Feminist fairies
Critically, it reconfigures expectations of what’s to be expected of the Fairy films. The greatest virtue of this series is that it’s undeniably and quite intentionally girly. These are films designed with little girls squarely in mind, and consequently we get love stories, fairies who are into fashion, and fairies who adore cuddly animals. Because, hey, some girls are into that and that’s cool. Because all those things are really cool.

But just because you’re into those things doesn’t mean you can’t be into great adventures, building things, and being fascinated by the way things work. Tinkerbell loves all those things, but she’s not Ripley or Sarah Connor. She’s a deliberately girly girl, she just likes adventure too. And that’s great, because the two are not mutually exclusive, and that such a wonderful message to be sending out to little girls. Grab your pink rucksacks kids, stick the Frozen soundtrack on, and go get muddy in a great adventure. Because you can do that!

This feminist approach also applies to the other fairies, who are sometimes selfish, sometimes ditzy, sometimes a bit stupid… Like Tinkerbell, these are female characters who make mistakes, do silly things, and have lessons to learn. But despite these flaws, they never ever stray from our affections. The films (and Great Fairy Rescue in particular) shows these flaws as part of their characters, and there’s a wonderful moment where Vidia (one of the vainer, more selfish fairies) confesses to being culpable for Tinkerbell’s capture, only for her friends to insist that she has nothing to feel guilty about.

So many female characters in films are expected to be perfect in order to be seen as ‘strong women’. The Disney Fairies films show that that doesn’t always have to be the case.

Faith, trust, and pixie dust…
Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue is light, but not devoid of substance or smarts. It’s a charming, sweet, and tender film that makes a virtue out of finetuning the new Tinkerbell into a character who is much more than fun sidekick, but a genuine hero for a generation of little girls who need and deserve a flawed, adventurous, girly character to look up to.

Next up in The Disney Review, a return to the classics with Sleeping Beauty. This will be preceded by 1953 Goofy short For Whom the Bulls Toil.

What do you think of Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue? Let me know in the comments and let’s get a Disney conversation flowing!

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The Mouse House Movie Club #1: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.

Short Film: Canine Casanova, in which Pluto attempts to get his rocks off with a saucy lady dog.
Feature Presentation: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which Disney tackles classic French literature with maturity, heart, and really bloody good songs.

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Canine Casanova
I’m a huge fan of Pluto, so when the random generator I use to select each short film plucked out Canine Casanova, I was delighted (doubly so because I watched it on National Dog Day and that made my shambolic approach to life seem carefully considered and beautifully planned). Sadly, Canine Casanova is only mid-level Pluto.

The best Pluto films are those where he gets to run through the whole gamut of emotion. He’s one of the great silent movie stars, and silent stars work best when they’re being plunged from one extreme emotion to the next. Look, for example, at A Gentleman’s Gentleman, Mickey and the Seal, or Pluto’s Christmas Tree. In all three, our canine chum goes through the emotional wringer, and that allows animators and writers to bring genuine comedy gold out of him.

Canine Casanova begins as a silly love story and segues fairly awkwardly into an action story involving a local dog pound. It’s not bad by any means, but the scenario simply doesn’t play to Pluto’s strengths. Shame. Happy National Dog Day anyway, boy.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
It took me a little while to fall in love with Hunchback. I’d always sorta respected the film more than loved it, but re-watching it for the first time in a long time last year awakened me to its virtues. Giving it another look for this project only enhanced that admiration.

Topsy turvy, upsy daysy
The first thing to note about Hunchback is how unusual it is in comparison with its fellow Renaissance films. There are no princesses here and no cute animals. We get some sidekicks in the shape of Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends, but they’re pretty marginal in comparison to Sebastian, Abu, or Timon and Pumba. This is a respectful, mature, and often very dark take on a classic of French literature.

Where it does trade of Disney tropes, it actually subverts them. Gender roles are flipped here, with Quasimodo playing the lost and longing Princess striving to get out into the world (he even has the ‘I Want’ song, the stirring ‘Out There’) and Esmeralda possessing most of the agency (until, sadly, the end where she becomes a bit of a damsel in distress).

It’s a clever reversal, and one that adds to the film’s sense of maturity and the characters’ richness. In the same way that Frozen would impress audiences by flipping our expectations on their heads, Hunchback throws convention out the window, delivering a refreshing angle and characters who feel much more than mere cliches. The Renaissance was seven years old by the time Hunchback came out, so that feat is not only pretty impressive but vital in keeping the momentum going.

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You know I am a righteous man
This convention-flipping doesn’t just apply to the heroes; it is perhaps more apt for our villain, the thoroughly nasty (but unsettlingly human) Frollo. Whereas most other Disney villains are driven by vanity, power, or simple brutality, Frollo’s evil is driven by a war within himself.

He speaks of being free of sin and spreading purity by ridding the Parisian streets of sinners, yet he himself is riddled with evil, killing Quasimodo’s mother and enslaving Quasimodo himself. He refuses to acknowledge either of these actions as morally wrong, and later in the film, refuses to accept both that Esmeralda will not love him and that he has any lustful feelings for her at all.

Hellfire, one of the most striking and complex musical numbers in Disney history, outlines the torment in Frollo’s heart perfectly. He demands answers, wanting to know why he lusts after Esmeralda so. None of course are forthcoming, and unable to reconcile his feelings, he vilifies Esmeralda, telling us he’ll either own her (in the way he owns Quasimodo) or destroy her.

It’s a chilling sequence for a number of reasons. Firstly, while other Disney villains outline their evil with like a theatrical soliloquy that we can distance ourselves from or by boasting to their minions, Hellfire plays out like a deeply personal confession. We shouldn’t be hearing this. It’s a person of public repute alone and spilling his secrets and lustful, murderous desires. We can do nothing to prevent ourselves from being party to them and nothing to stop him enacting them. There’s a voyeurism at play here that’s very unique territory for Disney to play in.

Secondly, and even worse, the sequence generates sympathy for this monster. It’s very difficult to relate to The Evil Queen, the Wicked Stepmother, Ursula and Scar’s motivations. They’re bad people seeking power – perfect fantasy villains. But who hasn’t felt conflicted like Frollo? Who hasn’t been confronted by their own baser instincts and wanted to run away from them, or shift the responsibility for them on to someone else?

He may be an extreme example, but Frollo is one of us and his actions, no matter how vile, are things we’re all capable of. Who is the monster and who is the man, the film asks. The line between them isn’t quite as clear as we’d hope.

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I dare to dream that she might even care for me
By 1996, audiences had become accustomed to the Renaissance formula. There’s a boy, there’s a girl, they meet, fall in love, and live happily ever after. Hunchback doesn’t necessarily buck that trend (Esmerelda does, of course, end up in a relationship), but it does twist it, giving us a new take on the meaning of love, just as Frozen would several years later.

In ‘Heaven’s Light’, Quasimodo sings of being in love in the way we’ve come to expect – the honeyed words of cold towers seeming bright and being bathed in warm and loving glows. But just as Frollo’s battle is one against himself, so too is Quasimodo’s. Certainly he needs to escape Frollo’s clutches, but to venture “out there” he must believe that he can be accepted, that he is worthy of the love he sings of.

That’s a process that involves shedding the wooden world he crafts within his tower, taking a risk, and going outside. When he does that, he sees that the crowd accepts him (even if they do later turn on him at Frollo’s behest) and that Esmeralda looks beyond his appearance and cares for him. Not – critically – as a romantic partner, but as a human being.

By rejecting a romance between the two, The Hunchback of Notre Dame emerges as a true love story that – even though I love these films – feels so much more real, so much more impactful than The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Love, the film says, isn’t just about singing birds and soft light; it’s about putting another person ahead of yourself and doing anything to make them happy.

Yes, I know I’m just an outcast/I shouldn’t speak to you
The lack of a romance with Quasimodo also allows Esmeralda a chance to breath and become so much more than the questing romantic (nothing wrong with that of course, but that’s Quasimodo’s role). Instead, she’s a warrior, a fighter who sees injustice and can’t do anything about it, no matter how much she tries.

Her treatment at the hands of Frollo is, sadly, even more relevant now than it was back in 1996, and her big moment (‘God Help the Outcasts’) allows her to escape a connection with any of the male characters, and stand on her own two feet. The song is a surprisingly damning tale of abandonment both by God and by those who are supposed to stand up for justice, and it’s direction furthers the sense of outrage.

When Esmeralda pleads with the almighty to help her and her people, directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise fill the screen with the vast empty halls of Notre Dame. It turns the song into something of a duet between Esmeralda and God, but God’s too busy doing a jig at the Festival of Fools to perform his bits. She sings into nothing, asking for justice for all but being heard by no-one.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film of epic scale and grand songs, but it’s in such silences that it truly excels.

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The Bells of Notre Dame
The box office was kind of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but history hasn’t been. It lacks of iconography of The Lion King, the timelessness of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and the groundbreaking representation of Mulan and Pocahontas. Like Tarzan a few years later, it’s generally regarded as a solid but unspectacular Renaissance offering: that we’re now 20 years on from its release and no talk of an anniversary has emerged sadly confirms that. Hopefully its reputation will pick up though and come 2026, we’ll be celebrating the 30th anniversary of this glorious and quietly groundbreaking film with all the enthusiasm of the Festival of Fools.

Next up in The Disney Review, direct to DVD shenanigans with Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue. This will be preceded by 1951 Donald Duck short Corn Chips.

What do you think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Let me know in the comments and let’s get a Disney conversation flowing!