When John Lasseter was appointed Chief Creative Officer for all animated productions released by the Walt Disney Company in 2006, he inherited a pair of movies that were reasonably far along in their development that he found to be so completely unacceptable in all ways that he could enumerate, he demanded they be essentially scrapped and rebuilt from the start, both of them still managing to come out by their targeted release dates in 2008. One of these was the Walt Disney Feature Animation project American Dog, which was released, one scrapped director later, as Bolt, and it is largely held to be a thoroughly satisfying, not at all world-changing film, though some of us still long to know what the original film, under the guiding hand of Chris Sanders, was going to look like. The other was the direct-to-video DisneyToon Studios film Tinker Bell, about which I can only say: golly Moses, if this is the fixed version...

I am not sure what to call this: a prequel to Peter Pan? A spin-off? The Japanese word gaiden would be perfect, but Peter Pan Gaiden is a title that implies something far more awesome, and probably steampunk-oriented, than Tinker Bell. This is a non-issue, of course; it only matters if we allow that Tinker Bell is a thoughtfully made expansion to the mythology of J.M. Barrie's play and novel, or the Disney films based thereon, and it is of course not that. It's a marketing ploy - an unusually straightforward one, at that. Disney had done spectacularly well with its Disney Princess line of toys and clothes and God knows what all, and once you've plastered those characters on the side of every plastic object that can possibly be sold to a little girl, you start to get itchy for a new horizon to pursue. In this case, the solution was found in the Disney Fairies line, in which Tinker Bell would be teamed with a whole bunch of color-coded pixies with their own carefully modulated personalities, and by starting the series off in the form of early reader books, the company could earnestly promise that it was promoting literacy. But not so much literacy that a series of Fairies movies (which, as much I understand it - and that is not well - take place in a totally different continuity) couldn't be snuck in there. Not to mention the "dress your daughter like a fairy" kiosks at the Disney theme parks.

Considering how soulless its genesis, the shocking thing is that Tinker Bell ends up being kind of fine. On the generic side, but not in a particularly unpleasant way, and the massive separation between it and any iteration of the Pan universe actually makes it easier to think about it without grousing on its failures as a "prequel", which it is only under the narrowest and least definition. Outside of the design and the shape of the island on which things take place, it's connection to Peter Pan is superficial at best, for the scenario that plays out here, and even the character of Tinker Bell herself, are frankly incompatible with anything that went before.

What replaces it is, on its own terms, not completely successful - there are conceptual holes that certainly would not matter to the film's target audience of little girls with disinterested parents, but I'm not in the least ashamed to admit that they mattered to me - and it's miserably over-familiar as a life lessons movie, while presenting characters who are carefully and expertly leeched of any appealing personality. But it's not insulting, and the message is considerably more pragmatic and reasonable than so, so, so much of what Disney wants to communicate to children. Why, the last time we peeked at a Disney video preying on the innocence of little girls, with Disney Princess Enchanted Tales: Follow Your Dreams, it was in service to the timeless message "being a princess is hard, which is why princesses are better than you". Next to that, the Tinker Bell theme that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you won't be able to succeed at certain things, but it's still possible to be your very best at other things is freakishly universal and downright radical, even if there's just a whisper of "stay in your place, peon" elitism looking in on the edges.

Anyway, the film is an origin story for the title character, voiced by Mae Whitman - yes, her, but with four more of these to go, I don't want to belabor that reference yet. I'd hate to shoot my wad on what's supposed to be a dry run - who is born when a baby laughs its first laugh, as Barrie explained way back in the Edwardian era, where Tinker Bell is at least notionally set. The laugh, embodied as a whisp of seed, travels through time and space to Never Land, where it alights in the corner of that country known as Pixie Hollow, and Queen Clarion (Anjelica Huston, the most overqualified voice actor in the history of Disney's direct-to-video program) of the fairies welcomes the new little girlfairy into the world. Here, a choosing ceremony assigns her to the company of the tinker fairies, and that's how she takes her name. Not that, following Disney's original film (but not Barrie), Tinker Bell is often referred to as merely "Tink", which makes no goddamn sense if everyone around her is also a tinker. Though it does not appear to be part of anybody else's name, which must be really depressing for her.

Over the course of a rather plot-thin hour and a quarter, Tinker Bell will decide that she really doesn't want to be a tinker fairy at all, and would rather be one of the nature fairies who travel to the Mainland - our world - to help change the seasons (making this as much a Fantasia sequel as Peter Pan prequel). The Mainland, incidentally, pretty clearly refers to absolutely nothing but London, so it's not clear if the Never Land fairies are strictly those who are born of London baby laughs, or what; it's all very hollow and banal in expression, and gives us no sense of how the world works, but that's so far away from what Tinker Bell is even pretending to be interested in that I don't know why I brought it up.

Anyway, Tink's four friends - ditzy (and ambiguously sapphic) water fairy Silvermist (Lucy Liu), nervous light fairy Iridessa (Raven-Symoné), kindly animal fairy Fawn (America Ferrera), and sensible garden fairy Rosetta (Kristin Chenoweth) - all try to help train her in the ways of season-fairying, but none of it works, and eventually Vidia (Pamela Adlon), a snide and bullying speed-flying fairy (this is a thing, in this film's narrative universe) tricks Tinker Bell into inadvertently ruining spring. But at long last, the implication the film has been leaning on all along, that her unmatched talent for tinkering can create inventions never before imagined, comes into play, and Tinker Bell revolutionises the fairy season-making process, so that a process that ordinarily takes weeks can be wrapped up in less than a full night.

That's barely even a single episode of television worth of content, though the "let's learn about Pixie Hollow" material at least means that the film never feels like it's tarrying, looking for content. Structurally and mechanically, all of this is perfectly serviceable, workmanlike children's entertainment: it tells a story briskly and efficiently and makes the lesson of that story clear without being tedious. The flaw - the giant flaw - is that it does this through the medium of some deeply boring characters; one-note personality types voiced by one-note performers whose marquee value (such as it is) far outweighs the impact of their vocal performance. Not one of the five central fairies sounds like anything besides an exceptionally chirpy and annoying American twenty-something (even Chenoweth and Liu, who were edging up to 40 at the time), and their inner lives go exactly as far as what is minimally required to keep scenes from hanging together. One supporting character, played by Jesse McCartney, drifts in and out of the plot so fast that the fact the movie obviously expects us to take an immediate liking to him offends me on every aesthetic level I have.

Really, the only distinctive characters are Tinker Bell's two colleagues, Bobble (Rob Paulsen) and Clank (Jeff Bennett); not at all coincidentally, the only two played by professional voice actors, who prove it by indulging in really broad, splashy accents that start out grating and get worse. I said "distinctive", not "good".

They're also the only two who look like much of anything; generally speaking, character design is something that Tinker Bell has a rough time with, though. It was the first fully-rendered computer-animated film made by DisneyToon Studios, and the learning curve is remarkably similar to what Disney proper had to go through with Chicken Little: there's an unlikable sameness to the characters, they have faces which yield only with great reluctance to accommodate changes of emotion, and there's the omnipresent, eye-watering feeling that they're made of molded vinyl, not flesh. It is disquieting in a way that you can't really define what's the problem it's more like an all-encompassing eldritch wrongness.

Credit where it's due: the non-character visuals are drop-dead gorgeous. The film's soft color palette does it plenty of favors, and in the many wide shots, it feels very much like the kind of oil paintings treasured by people with only limited taste in art, but a real love of beautiful landscapes and evocative lighting. In fact, the wide shots are probably the single best thing about Tinker Bell, a movie that has very little personality, as befits its status as a feature-length commercial for brand name (which is somehow even worse than a feature-length commercial for toys), and cannot be praised more readily than, "this is emphatically harmless in every possible way". But harmless and pretty? Okay, you've got something there. I'm willing to admit that.