You have every right to be skeptical.
Starting in 1994, with the release of "The Return of Jafar" -- a direct-to-video sequel to "Aladdin" that auspiciously did not feature the vocal talents of Robin Williams -- Disney, under the increasingly pushy leadership of Michael Eisner, put out a steady stream of direct-to-video sequels, spin-offs, and alternate versions that did nothing to actually strengthen their respective brands. Instead, the endless sequels wore down consumers who were used to quality productions from Disney and not, say, "Cinderella III: A Stitch in Time." Because, of course, the one thing missing from the original "Cinderella" was "Back to the Future II"-style time travel.
When Disney absorbed Pixar and put Pixar executive John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in charge of the creative side of the company, that meant that the company's approach to the direct-to-home video product also changed. Planned sequels to "The Aristocats" and "Chicken Little" were quickly scrapped and focus shifted to creating mostly new product lines based on preexisting properties that wouldn't actively shame the originals. One of these lines was "Tinkerbell." Another, which ended up getting theatrical presentations, was "Planes."
The best of these movies, though, by far, is "The Pirate Fairy," which comes to home video platforms (including the new Disney Movies Anywhere app) on April 1. Animated by the talented folks at DisneyToon Studios, it's the tale of one of Tinkerbell's contemporaries, a fairy named Zarina (Christina Hendricks), who, after being ostracized from Pixie Hollow, takes up with a band of pirates, led by the future Captain Hook (Tom Hiddleston). It's great. Like really great. The fact that this movie is delegated to a home video debut, while the significantly crummier "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" makes it to the big screen, is beyond annoying.
But back to "The Pirate Fairy." If you haven't seen any of the other fairy movies, don't worry, you won't get lost. All you need to know is that there are a bunch of fairies in Pixie Hollow (including Tinkerbell, voiced by Mae Whitman) and that each of those fairies has a certain power -- over water, animals, plants, etc. Zarina is a fun character because she doesn't fit in with the other fairies. Instead, she's interested in the secret alchemy of pixie dust, and creating her own bold new concoctions (something that doesn't sit well with the fairy higher-ups). When Zarina strikes out on her own, she is both empowered but also undone: in the weirdly socialist world of fairies, you really have to work together to survive. Zarina has to accept the positives of the cooperative.
One of the more fun aspects of the movie is that the fairies get their powers switched, so they are out of their element and forced to band together to try and bring Zarina back. This might seem minor, but it pays off big time both in terms of the humor of the piece (faced with her new light-bending powers, a fairy accidentally gives another fairy an impromptu haircut) and the inherent drama of the situation. Not only are they totally out of their element, out on the high seas, having to find a missing confederate, but they're also dealing with a newfound set of powers that might not be the best fit for their respective personalities.
The voice cast is fairly solid (you'll hear some work by Disney voice talent war horses in there), led by two outstanding performances by Hendricks and Hiddleston. Hendricks is the perfect choice for the headstrong Zarina; on "Mad Men" she's already carved a niche for herself as something of a feminist icon. That reputation is double-underlined here. Zarina is a feisty and intelligent fairy whose independence isn't something that should be shunned but rather celebrated. It's not her fault that she falls in with a bad crowd, and she is more than willing to try and make up for her mistakes. Hendricks rocks, even in animated fairy form.
But it should come as no surprise that Hiddleston steals the show as the man who will be Hook.
In various Marvel productions and next week's vampire romance "Only Lovers Left Alive," Hiddleston has proven himself to be one of the more exciting actors working today -- an endlessly enjoyable bundle of charisma combined with a kind of wounded steeliness. Here, he's Hook before the Hook -- a dastardly, somewhat idealistic pirate who sees Zarina for what she can give him, not the kind of loving, codependent relationship offered up by the other fairies of Pixie Hollow. And watching him turn from a sea chantey-singing (yes, he sings) fop to something of an actual villain, is really great to watch. The animators have done a solid job of visually referencing the designs from Disney's original animated "Peter Pan" without lifting from it wholesale, and the entire character feels both new and familiar. It's a winning combination and a big reason why "The Pirate Fairy" soars.
So, if you have completely written off the direct-to-video Disney animated movies, it's time to reassess. "The Pirate Fairy" is a wonderful animated romp, and probably the best direct-to-video Disney movie ever (directed by another wonderful female Disney stalwart Peggy Holmes!) It's beautifully animated, wonderfully paced, and enjoyable for Disney die-hards like myself -- or even those who consider themselves causal fans of the story or characters.
Even without pixie dust, "The Pirate Fairy" takes flight. And not just because you get to hear Tom Hiddleston sing a sea chantey.