Tink's triumph: Disney dusts off the 55-year-old fairy -- to shining results

While the nubile talents in the High School Musical franchise have gotten all the attention lately, the pixie brand, based on a nymph dating to the Cold War, has been bubbling for a few years, and today, merchandise from the fairies outsells HSM by a margin of three to one. All this fuss is over Tinker Bell, the sprite from Disney's animated version of Peter Pan, which came out in 1953. While Zac Efron pumps up his biceps to look prettier, Tinker Bell is still dressed in those nifty, hip-hugging dresses popular when Janis Paige was a star.

The royal Disney product category remains the Princesses, which rakes in some $4 billion a year, but the Mouse is working hard to boot up another girly franchise, which so far has raked in $800 million. In 2005, Disney dusted off the old duster and began releasing a series of books based on Peter Pan's testy sidekick. Taking a page from the comics, Disney gave Tink a story that began before Peter, and teamed her up with a few new fairies bestowed with X-Men powers, such as the ability to control water. Once kids were versed in these new, ethnically mixed Disney characters (Silvermist, Fawn, Iridessa, and Rosetta), rare in that they weren't launched on the silver screen, a successful line of Pixie Hollow toys followed.

And just in time. On Oct. 7, Merrill Lynch downgraded Disney stock, saying that economic woes will dent its profits, and now the race is on to put some solid infrastructure behind the Tink craze. That includes an array of profile-pumping "Disney Fairies" exercises including a website and a tie-in with the U.S. Department of Energy. On Oct. 28, a new computer-animated DVD movie starring Tinker Bell was released. No longer mute, the old gal, who has been AARP-eligible for five years, now talks with a cadence and a vocabulary that recalls that other Disney character with magical profit abilities: Miley Cyrus.

A New Look for Old Brands

    What changed: Little girls have been inundated with Disney princess paraphernalia for years now, and the line has been so popular that the company wants to try to do the same thing with fairies. Tinker Bell, a mere side character in J.M. Barrie's 1911 novel and the 1953 movie version of Peter Pan, is going to soon be a leading lady. A straight-to-DVD movie, Tinker Bell, comes out October 28, and that will be followed by a line of books, toys, lip gloss and stationary. The new line could mean big bucks as Tink already brings in about $800 million in retail sales for existing products.

    AP | Disney

    What changed: Pepsi has unveiled its fifth new logo in 2 decades, right, as part of a new plan to redefine itself as a cultural leader. The redesigned Pepsi packages should hit store shelves early next year. Mountain Dew and Sierra Mist drinks will also get a new look.

    AP / Pepsico

    What changed: For the first time, Long John Silver's will be offering its first non-fried items. The Freshside Grille selections includePacific Salmon (pictured), Shrimp Scampi and Tilapia.

    YUM! / AP

    What changed: The national restaurant chain went through a drastic decor makeover in 2008 to make the furnishings more upscale and sleek from its former look with Tiffany-style lamps and antiques. Total cost? $65 million. When the company got to the last of its locations, it staged a mock explosion, blowing up the interior and replaying the action on YouTube. Now all 600 locations of the 36-year-old chain have a modern look with black awnings outside and black-and-white checked tablecloths inside, plus a new straightforward logo.


    What changed: Popeye's is sporting a new look with an orange and red logo with the words "Louisiana Kitchen" set off by fleur-de-lis designs and a giant "P" in the middle the better to emphasize the almost 40-year-old chain's New Orleans roots. Gone is the blue-bordered logo that the company deemed not fancy enough to go after the upscale audience it seeks to court. The logo makeover comes in conjunction with a new $1.49 menu that will include a loaded chicken wrap, the delta mini sandwich and a chicken biscuit. New commercials will feature a fictional chef named Ed, who sits with diners and talks about his food.


    What changed: Chex Party Mix, invented in 1955, will get a makeover with new recipes, new packaging and a new spokeschef, Katie Lee Joel, (pictured in the center, with Suzanne M. Grimes, president, Food & Entertaining at Readers Digest on the right and Cheri Olerud, senior cookbook editor and test kitchen expert for Chex cereal on the left.

    Business Wire

    What changed: The venerable crock pot, long a staple of the American kitchen, is trying to become the ultimate multi-tasker for the contemporary two-income family that wants to eat healthy. Crock Pot's owner, Jarden Consumer Solutions, wants the slow cooker to become a "trophy" product that people want to give as gifts and buy for themselves. So new cookers will come in bright colors no more cream and burgundy and will feature updated packaging that evokes savory root vegetables rather than grandma's quilt.

    Crock-Pot | Hughes Design Group

    What changed: The 400-location hotel worldwide hotel chain is in the middle of a $1.7 billion project to renovate about half its U.S. hotels. The new look includes brighter colors in the room, with pillowtop beds and white duvets and flat-screen TVs. Sheraton is rolling out a branded line of toiletries, called Shine by Bliss, and fitness centers will get upgrades. Lobbies will feature restaurants, most with a casual dining chain called Relish, and cafes with Internet stations. Some locations may also have a steakhouse developed by Shula's.


    What changed: Now owned by Stride Rite, which re-acquired the rights to the sneaker brand from hip-hop mogul Damon Dash (a recent foreclosure victim), PRO-Keds are going to get a makeover as they come back into the fold. Stride Rite will focus on classic styles, such as the "Royal" canvas basketball shoe, first introduced in 1949, and give it an overhaul that will hit stores in November and retail for $50 to $80.


    What changed: Hasbro updated the 60-year-old game of Clue with changes that include a fancy new mansion with a spa and theater, and new weapons like a baseball bat and an ax. Professor Plum is now an Internet billionaire and Colonel Mustard is a former football star, and the murder mystery takes place during a party for the rich and famous. The game structure has also changed somewhat, with the addition of a second deck of cards, which is supposed to add an extra element of surprise.


Also this month, a permanent version of Pixie Hollow, the newly invented home base for the fairies, opened in the kiddie areas of both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, providing an all-day meet-and-greet area for costumed characters. Finally given a voice, Tinker Bell can actually chat with toddlers. It won't be long before the parks start giving little girls fairy makeovers complete with hair, nails, and dress, the way they already do for princesses at $190 to $250.

Meanwhile, High School Musical pulled in a $46 million opening weekend at the movies. That's a drop in the budget compared to the fairies' $800 million haul, and the teenybopper trilogy was given a measly street performance gig at the Hollywood Studios park in Florida.

The return to a vintage character from the heyday of hand-drawn animation is unusual for Disney's trend-driven management. In recent years, Disney has all but ignored the classics to promote the new generation of movies created after 1989, especially those by Pixar. The working animation studio at Walt Disney World, where tourists could once watch artists create movies like Lilo & Stitch, was shut down, and the art that built the Disney empire is now given scant attention beyond the odd DVD extra feature.

The success of Tinker Bell has always baffled me. At heart, she's a hateful, homicidal character. Watch the 1953 movie that made her famous. She spends the entire film trying to murder Wendy. Yet in a country where ultra-religious factions protest Harry Potter in the name of rejecting witchcraft, good old Tink has somehow gotten a pass, mostly on the back of her association with the Disney reputation. Still, given a choice between the boy-pleasing ethic implicit in the Princess movement and the don't-mess-with-me vibe of the athletic Tinker Bell, I'd pick the pixies.

The Mouse has struggled to create a similarly successful analog for little boys. It has had mild success with pirates (role model there: the dissolute Captain Jack Sparrow), but nothing on the level of its zeitgeist-changing Davy Crockett home run from Tink's early years.
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