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 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 no longer are 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 contemporary Pixar characters such 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 racked up $800 million in retail sales last year as consumers snapped up 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."
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' memories of a beloved character.
"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 down."
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."