An Environmentalist Message from Pixie Hollow: A Review of Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast
After seven adventures (including the much shorter Pixie Hollow Games), who's your favorite fairy? From the start, when I was drawn into this world for my daughter, mine has been Fawn. Since the previous films only hinted at the possibilities for her character, I was delighted to see the Disney team has finally turned the focal attention onto our favorite animal talent fairy.
Some of you may have turned away, or some of you may be groaning, thinking this franchise is turning out cookie-cutter films: one of the fairies (no longer just Tink) has a gift, insight, or vision the other fairies do not understand; the vision puts the other fairies at risk, leaving the central character to question her passion; yet her courage and persistence is ultimately vindicated.
Yes, this film follows that basic pattern: At the start Fawn laments the other fairies cannot see what she sees, but by the end of the film, she celebrates their new sight. However, if you dismiss the film because of this structural repetition, you'll fail to see what it does well.
You might also say it's no surprise to see Disney smuggling a message about loving animals into a story about a nature fairy, and that this ground has been covered well by other animated films like Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon movies. And I would agree with you, but as I watched Fawn's adventures, I was pleasantly surprised at the balanced complexity of the story.
(The rest of you who love this series and celebrate the Disney team's (under Lasseter's leadership) expansion of the Peter Pan mythology can just smile and nod your heads.)
Toward the middle of the film, Queen Clarion confronts both Fawn (the protagonist) and Nyx (the antagonist), declaring that they are both intelligent, talented fairies and she trusts both will do what is best. Here we see the wise (or evasive--depending on your view of politicians) words of the leader of the fairies, and the writers' awareness of the complexity of the issue in question: how do they (we) treat animals who can be a threat to fairies (human beings)?
Fawn embodies the animal lover with the big heart: she even reasons in an early conversation with Queen Clarion that she should learn to lead more with her mind than her heart (which led her to smuggle a wounded baby hawk into Pixie Hollow, to almost disastrous consequences).
Nyx represents those who champion the cause of human needs, detailing the damage and even death large, wild animals can bring. We might think here of those who argue alligators, wolves, and lions should be shot if they are anywhere near where human beings live. Nyx wants to protect her village from very real threats.
What's interesting here is the film affirms both perspectives for as long as it can before it finally falls in Fawn's favor. In the presence of the NeverBeast, we see the fairies wrestling with a force of nature they do not understand.
The conflict begins when Fawn discovers and helps (removing a thorn from his paw in Aesop mouse-lion tradition) the NeverBeast, a large, unusual creature, who has been awakened by the passing of a strange green comet. Although she is rebuffed several times, Fawn resolutely works to befriend the animal, even giving him a name, "Gruff."
Here we find a lesson in how we are to approach another creature, one who is "other," who is different--one we cannot explain. Fawn is mystified and intrigued by Gruff's obsession with stones, and how he builds large, curved towers out of them. Nature often confronts us with things we cannot understand. Fawn represents those who are patient, observant, and caring.
When an accident with the placement of those stones (caused by Fawn's use of pixie dust) destroys a field of sunflowers and threatens the lives of two fairies, scout fairy Nyx sets her sights on uncovering the mystery. In her research Nyx digs out an ancient portrait of the NeverBeast as a creature that brings a devastating storm to Pixie Hollow. As the leader of the scouts, Nyx believes she must protect those around her from this coming threat.
The NeverBeast and the storm are both real threats. Nyx is justified in her cautiousness--the writers emphasize this in Queen Clarion's endorsement of both Fawn and Nyx. Fawn even comes to question her devotion to Gruff first when she sees him transform (growing demonic-looking horns and wings) and later when he knocks Tinker Bell down with his tail.
The story progresses through Nyx's campaign to capture the NeverBeast, now aided by Fawn, who feels guilty about Tinker Bell (who lies in bed, unconscious, back at home). However, when the storm finally does arrive, the fairies quickly see the towers are giant lightning rods, collecting the destructive lightning. Fawn risks her life to get Gruff into the sky to collect the lightning.
Nature wields power beyond us. Those of you who know something about trophic cascades will know ecologists are discovering how the presence of animals can affect ecosystems in many unpredictable ways. (If you don't know what trophic cascades are, I'd recommend watching the video on this site, which explains how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone brought unexpected consequences.) Here the fairies could not predict how Gruff would interact with the storm.
As the story closes, Fawn is ultimately vindicated (Tink clarifies Gruff knocked her down to save her from a falling tree), and Nyx has to admit (after Gruff saves her life and then disperses the storm) she misjudged Gruff. The story had to go this way considering its placement in Pixie Hollow, but the writers throw in one last surprise that again affirms the unpredictability of Nature. After several scenes where Gruff is playing in Pixie Hollow with the fairies and the other animals, he starts to get sleepy.
Fawn realizes Gruff must go back into hibernation for another 1000 years (until the comet and storm return). Those who demand feel-good endings will be upset that the final images are Fawn's tears and Gruff's eyes closing, but I believe this was the fitting ending and shows the complexity in a film many unfortunately may overlook. Whenever we connect with another being, we enter into a relationship we cannot control. When we care for another in this finite world, there are moments when we have to part.
If anyone asks for a film that intelligently presents the complex issues of environmentalism, specifically addressing our relationships with animals, this one will now be on my short list.