It's quite impossible to accuse Secret of the Wings of being the worst Tinker Bell movie, not with Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue out in the world, strutting its stuff. It is, though, not very good at all, ending up almost exactly where I'd assumed beforehand that the whole Disney Fairies franchise was going to live, before Tinker Bell came along and proved that, in point of fact, DisneyToon Studios had some acutely intelligent and meaningful ideas about what they could communicate and what stories they could tell using the character so inexplicably dragged out of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan mythos and dropped into a wholly different kind of fantasy universe.

In the case of Secret of the Wings, that very same fantasy universe turns out to be far more mutable than we'd ever been led to believe, whereby "mutable" means that the writers decided that they could do whatever the fuck they wanted to the established rules. Four writers, including director Peggy Holmes and co-director Bobs Gannaway, who had between them absolutely no prior contact with the Tinker Bell franchise, I might add, because that very much feels to me like it proves something. I'm not entirely sure what. But something (also potentially proving something: trained choreographer Holmes's only prior directorial credit was on the violently anodyne prequel The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning).

In particular, the film invents all sorts of outright nonsense about the winter fairies of Pixie Hollow, now stating that they live in a completely irreconcilable ecosystem, and just as they cannot cross into the temperate spring, summer, and autumn zones of the fairy realm, so can the rest of the fairies not enter the Winter Woods. A notion which is absolutely not in the same continuity as the first film, and while this might seem nitpicky, there's no reason, ever, to be that irreverent about established series rules, unless you're going to do something interesting and intellectually defensible with it. And I supposed Holmes, Gannaway et alia maybe thought that what they were doing was interesting, but I emphatically do not agree with them. And s far as "intellectually defensible" goes, they deal with the rules shift by simply ignoring that it happened. That's just damn disrespectful, man. I am sure that if the only job with the Walt Disney Company that I could get was story development on the Tinker Bell pictures, I'd feel a little disgruntled about it too, but if your job is to care about doing a thing right, you damn well do it right.

There's also some confusing matter about what the winter fairies are; the impression I get is that every time a baby laughs its first laugh, contrary to Tinker Bell and Barrie's writing, it creates two fairies, one for the winter, one for everything else. This presumably means that there are exactly as many winter fairies as there are all other fairies combined, which would lead to a population crisis and a great deal of wasted labor, but since the whole conceit is a transparent ploy to work the phrase "Tinker Bell's sister" into the plot synopsis, it's not worth belaboring the story logic behind it. Marketing gimmicks don't need story logic.

So aye, that's the nugget of Secret of the Wings: Tinker Bell (Mae Whitman) is out nosing around the border between the autumn and winter quadrants of Pixie Hollow around the time that the rest of the fairies are busy preparing to change seasons in the human world - it's impossible to figure out a way for this to be her first winter, but that certainly would seem to be the subtext of the whole "God, Tink, here are the rules! Follow them!" routine that appears for the fourth time in four features. She drifts, naughtily, across the sharp line delineating the season, and her wings start to glisten with opalescent beauty, though she just about freezes to death while watching them, agog.

Having been healed up - the doctor's office scene is the most transparently DreamWorksey, "let's have a prosaic everyday setting in the fantasy world! It is comedy!" gesture in the Tinker Bell corpus - Tinker Bell begins to investigate the secret... wait for it... of the wings. She only finds one bookworm-ravaged text on the subject, but it's enough to send her on a secret mission to the Winter Woods, to find that book's author (Jeff Bennett), and he eventually spills the beans: fairies' wings only glow like that when they're in the company of their twin. And just like that, Tinker Bell meets Periwinkle (Lucy Hale, who I imagine is some Teen Disney pop tart, but damned if I've ever heard of her), who looks exactly like her, inasmuch as every female fairy in this series who isn't comically overweight already looks exactly like Tinker Bell, but with different color hair. Which Periwinkle has.

The sisters are overjoyed to be reunited, but there's a hitch: seems that Queen Clarion (Anjelica Huston) of the temperate fairies and Lord Milori (Timothy Dalton, who could not play the old "for my kids" card, his son being 15 at the time of the film's premiere) of the winter fairies have agreed on an ironclad rule that no fairies shall ever cross the season border for any reason. But this hardly discourages Tinker Bell and her friends, who invent a snow making machine to allow Periwinkle to survive in their warmer clime, and in hardly any time at all, the machine has gotten jammed and triggers an apocalyptic frost that threatens to destroy the entire fairy world, making this the second time that Tinker Bell has very nearly precipitated the extinction of her species. I am more convinced than ever that if they finally hit a point where they yoke this series up to Peter Pan, it will be after just such an occurrence.

Secret of the Wings is totally harmless, I suppose, though there's not much I enjoy saying less about a children's movie than "this is harmless". But at the very least, the message it communicates is benign, mostly because it does not clearly possess any sort of message. The first three films - and aye, even the insubstantial short Pixie Hollow Games - all had largely concrete, albeit mostly boilerplate life lessons to impart about the way that society works and how to be a well-adjusted human being who contributes things and is liked instead of just being a pie-eyed fantasist who obsessively wears pink shit. Great Fairy Rescue muddies this up with its jolly anti-science rants, but for the most part, they are solid, slightly boring, but entirely fair things to expose one's little girlchildren to and feel comfortable knowing that they are being told things which will make them more capable and well-rounded people. Secret of the Wings has none of that. It's not damaging, to be sure; it's not anything. It's a painfully generic adventure movie for children that hits every beat that every other animated adventure movie of the last 10 years has hit, with leaden proficiency and an earnest attempt to raise the dramatic stakes that goes much too overboard by threatening the trivial, twinkling land of the oh-so-charming fairies with goddamn Ragnarok.

As far as character conflicts go, though, there's nothing in here that has anything to say about anything else: the relationship between Tinker Bell and Periwinkle is established so quickly that it doesn't take, and the subsequent narrative clichés are straight out of the Romeo and Juliet handbook, which at least amusingly suggests an incestuous reading of the plot, though regardless of any subtext, "it's important to remain true to your long-lost sibling even if it triggers the end of the world, because it's pretty easy to reverse that, anyway" isn't really a usable message. And I don't want to act like some joy-starved Zhdanovist who only sees merit in art if it is functionally and ideologically valuable, but the thing about the Tinker Bell movies has been that they're largely interesting solely because of their affirmative messages to little girls, rare in their complexity and empowerment both. Take that away, as Secret of the Wings does, and you've taken away the only fig leaf that disguises what these films have always been: trite stories fixed around a bland character voiced with an impossibly generic all-American turn by Whitman, with the visuals a confusing, primarily unpleasant mix of very beautiful backgrounds and very stiff, soulless character animation. I can trick myself into liking Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, that is to say; I cannot do the same with Secret of the Wings, which really is all on the surface, and the surface has never been more than tolerable in any of these movies.

The plus side - I will be generous, and allow the existence of a plus side - is that Secret of the Wings is at least as lovely as any of the movies preceding it, owing mostly to its winning depiction of winter landscapes, which is awfully pretty, it being hard to make even CGI trees covered in snow look ugly.

The other thing is a bunny who appears early on, when the fairies are moving the animals to winter for... I don't know why, actually. The point being, this bunny is so appallingly cute that if it were even an inch cuter, I would be violently ill because of it.

Cute bunnies: that's a thing, right? It's worth giving a movie a pass if it has a really fucking cute bunny? No, probably not, but it's the best that Secret of the Wings has to offer. Oh well, it could be worse. It could have no cute bunnies at all, just its vanilla, mediocre plot and its vanilla, mediocre characters. It could have a fucking all-dog country band.

Thank goodness for small favors.