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Tinker Bell to sprinkle fairy dust over Disney profits

If Goofy seems grumpy or Mickey a touch moody, put it down to old-fashioned envy. What on earth has come over the bosses at Walt Disney? They are suddenly lavishing all their attention on a silly, giggly bit-part gal who until now has never even had a speaking role in one of their films.

The object of all the attention is Tinker Bell, the perky pixie-dust fairy from Peter Pan, who right now is getting the kind of Disney do-over previously experienced only by the likes of Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana) and Lindsay Lohan. She may not be real like them but it's make-Tink-hot time.

A campaign to elevate Tinker Bell, first glimpsed in 1904 when J M Barrie wrote Peter Pan, to the ranks of Disney cartoon greats has actually been under way for some time. But it is reaching a crescendo with a straight-to-video animated feature, Tinker Bell, due on shelves at the end of October, as well as new Tink-themed attractions at Disney parks and a travelling ice show with Tink as the main star.

A clue to what Disney was up to came last month with the unveiling of the list of actors to be given stars next year on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. It seemed like a sensible assortment of talent, with the likes of William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, Ralph Fiennes and Tinker Bell. Yes, Tinker Bell is to get her own star. Someone in Disney marketing and promotions had been working overtime.

Christmas shopping, of course, is what this is mostly about. It has been a few years since Disney struck gold developing its princesses franchise, which melded all the princess characters in its stable of characters into a single pink-and-tiara theme, which translated easily into merchandising line of must-haves for little girls, ranging from bed linens to video games and jewellery. Traditionalists, including Roy Disney, hated all of it, but the princess franchise should generate $4bn (£2bn) for Disney this year alone.

It struck someone at Disney that thanks to Tinker Bell an entire line of fairy products could be introduced that might prove even more potent in the early-teens market. "We were fundamentally missing an opportunity in terms of getting Tinker Bell out there as a character," Andrew Mooney, the chairman of Disney Consumer Products told the Los Angeles Times. "There's clearly latent demand." For the new franchise line to work, however, Tink needed a rather fuller story line which a non-speaking part could not really provide. So in 2004 Disney decided to make not one straight-to-DVD movie, but four. And Tinker Bell would have lines, of course. It's all a far cry from Barrie's original description of the fairy, as "a girl called Tinker Bell, exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage".

Cries of travesty and sacrilege may ring out, but Disney is used to that. Purloining literary characters and giving them new incarnations in the world of cartoon and animation is what the company has done for generations, from A A Milne's Pooh to Victor Hugo's Hunchback. Who cares if their new celluloid adventures bear only a passing similarity to the lives the authors originally intended for them?

So will the four Tinker Bell films, to be released by Disney Home Video, take more liberties still? A glimpse at the trailer of Tinker Bell offers some reassurance. The narrator has the requisite English accent and Tink takes a spin around Big Ben, as she should.

One wonders, though, what she will get up to in the other three instalments: Tinker Bell: North of Neverland; Tinker Bell: A Midsummer Storm and Tinker Bell: A Winter Story.

A brief history of a small fairy

In the play Peter and Wendy, J M Barrie's original version of the story of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell traditionally appeared as a spotlight on the stage. When she jumped to the big screen in 1924, she took human form in the shape of Virginia Browne Faire, in Herbert Brenon's 1924 silent movie Peter Pan.

Tinker Bell's most enduring moment on celluloid came in Disney's 1953 cartoon version. It was rumoured that the fairy in the animated classic was modelled on Marilyn Monroe, but sadly this is an urban myth. It was the actress Margaret Kerry who provided the inspiration, and whose facial expressions were translated into pictures by the animators bringing Tinker Bell to life.

The fairy finally found her voice in Steven Spielberg's 1991 film Hook, a live-action adventure romp starring Robin Williams as Peter Pan and Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook. Tinker Bell was playedas a rebellious tomboy by the Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts, left, and although the film was not received well by critics, it still managed to be a commercial success.