The once-proud DisneyToon Studios, formerly a mighty machine ceaselessly cranking out sequel upon sequel to the films of the Walt Disney Feature Animation canon, has of late been reduced to listlessly cranking out Planes and Tinker Bell movies at a slow drip. And between these two points, we run almost the whole gamut of the company's output: Planes and Planes: Fire & Rescue have been middling-to-awful, where as the Tinker Bells, when they are not busy telling pre-teen girls that science is stupid and a waste of time, have included some of the most thoughtful, nuanced stories in the entirety of the Disney direct-to-video program. And yes, that means we're talking about only a little bit of thought or nuance, but it's not nothing.

All of which is as much to say: I had expectations for The Pirate Fairy, the fifth feature in the Disney Fairies line, that were totally out of bounds for anything that it conceivably could have delivered. And it doesn't meet those expectations, though it's shockingly decent all in all: a considerable improvement over the somewhat idiotic Secret of the Wings from 2012, the last full-length film in the franchise. If it is a disappointment, it is a disappointment mostly at the level of theme: the whole deal of the series has been to expose young girls to what should be commonsense truisms about life and being a member of society, but are regrettably not. And The Pirate Fairy has no real theme of that sort: it does look for a while that it's trending back in the "oh, science, that's terrible stuff" direction of Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, but the final scene so thoroughly muddies any kind of overriding message in any direction that the whole thing ends up being very little more than a straightforward adventure with pirates. And given the state of American animation right now, "girls can be the protagonist in adventures" actually does count as progressive messaging, which is the most depressing thing I can think of right this moment.

The story this time hinges on a new character, Zarina (Christina Hendricks), a fairy with radical and untested ideas about using experimentation and research to expand the possible uses of pixie dust. When one of these experiments goes wrong, she banishes herself from the fairy world for a full year, returning as the captain of a human pirate ship, to steal the fairie's precious blue pixie dust and continue her experiments, while also using the powers of the dust to aid in her career of piracy. The series standby heroes happen to be the only ones to avoid being walloped by Zarina's attack with sleeping dust, and so they head off to stop her: Tinker Bell (Mae Whitman), and the Southern one (Megan Hilty), and the bitchy one (Pamela Adlon), and the quiet one (Lucy Liu), and the nervous one (Raven-Symoné), and the nice one (Angela Bartys). Against them are Zarina and her human first mate, James (Tom Hiddleston), an excitable human pirate who can understand the fairy language.

The pirates form a more explicit link to Disney's Peter Pan than has yet been seen in any of these films, and it's not always a perfect join: there are details that do not line up at all concerning the relationship of that film's Captain Hook (whose identity is meant to be a shock here, and I suppose it might be to someone, somewhere, but the literal first shot in which the future Hook showed up got me to thinking, "oh, well I bet I know who he turns out to be...") and the crocodile who ate his hand. But then again, if the film didn't commit that continuity error, we'd have been deprived the sight of that same crocodile as a baby, and I would not give that up for anything whatsoever, because good God damn, is it cute.

The story itself is pretty basic and entirely functional, ushering the characters through the ginned-up conflict by which Zarina swaps out all the heroes' natural talents, and they have to spend almost a whole scene figuring out how to adapt. It's pleasantly entertaining by kids' movie standards, mind you, and it breezes by at a crisp 78 minutes, almost ten of which are credits; there's little depth, and the shift by which the pirates go from being Zarina's jolly crew to scurrilous traitors (because of course they do) is disappointingly abrupt and ill-motivated; the film had a chance to do something complex and make the process by which villains are formed feel more organic and aware of human desire and psychology, but it just plugs in a stock reveal by which we find out that they were terrible, wicked beasts all along. Subtlety and complicated morality isn't this film's strong suit, which is too bad: it is one of the things the Tinker Bell movies have done best.

As a shallow adventure movie for children, though, I can say nothing bad against it: the characters are likable and given more flexibility in their personalities than has elsewhere been true in the series, though five protagonists was definitely two more than director Peggy Holmes and her coterie of writers had the ideas to deal with. But there's a generosity with which even the most easily-forgotten of the characters is handled, and with which their in-group relationships are teased out, that makes it all very nice and easygoing. The result is a lived-in and familiar feeling that compensates for how rushed it all is.

Better still: the film looks pretty terrific. For the first time in the franchise, the characters don't feel like plastic toys: they have a flexibility and ranginess to their expression unknown in earlier films. Their faces evoke emotions other than revulsion; that's a huge step for this series.

The lighting and backgrounds are also quite lovely; this is not new for the films (they've always had better backgrounds than character animation), but the ambition of the dusty and foggy lighting here is at a whole new level.

It is, dare I say it, a Tinker Bell film that is pleasurable to look at: not up to the standards of the best feature animation, but an enormous improvement over the rest of DisneyToon's output to date. And that, coupled with the pleasant storytelling and character building, makes for a movie that ranks right up near the very best of the its franchise and thus the very best direct-to-video Disney movies ever. Even if it doesn't the thematic resonance of its forebears, it's enough fun as a simple, colorful yarn with genial broad comedy and energetic characters that it's surprisingly beguiling in its little way.