Review: My Little Pony: The Movie

Distributor: Lionsgate

Director: Jayson Thiessen

Writer: Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao, Michael Vogel

Starring: Uzo Aduba, Ashleigh Ball, Emily Blunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Taye Diggs, Andrea Libman, Michael Peña, Zoe Saldana, Liev Schreiber, Sia, Tabitha St. Germain, Tara Strong, Cathy Weseluck

Genre: Musical, Fantasy

Rating: PG

I am of two minds right now. A part of me–the part that is unhealthily infatuated with a past-tense perspective–is absolutely baffled.  “How did we GET here?!” that part seems to ask. The other part, the one that is objectively-but-cynically relegated to a present-tense vision is dismissively underwhelmed. “Why did it take us so long to get here?” that part asks. There is some insight to be had from either angle, and I’ll do my best to give acknowledgment to both.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Action scenes may be too intense for very young kids: Scary, dark villains come out of the sky in airships that spread spooky black clouds, and several fights take place in midair, with ponies hurtling through the air (before being saved at the last moment). Ponies are turned into black statues with scared-looking faces; a villainous pony shoots electrical sparks from her horn that make other characters fall down. In a scene in which ponies walk exhaustedly through a desert, Pinkie Pie picks up a skull, and a bug crawls out and across her face. Ponies are trapped in cages by villains and almost fall over a giant waterfall.

Language/Crude Humor: None

Sexual Content: None

Drug/Alcohol Use: None

Spiritual Content: Depictions of make-believe fairy tale magic.

Other Negative Themes: None, really.

Positive Content: Positive messages are emphasized through dialogue, plot, and song, with lyrics highlighting confidence, teamwork, and working hard. Friends are supportive of one another, authority figures are thoughtful and kind, and the ponies’ ultimate goals are peace, friendship, and fun.  As on the TV show, each pony has individual quirks–Applejack can get feisty, Rarity is vain, Pinkie Pie is daffy–but they’re all reliable, loving friends. Most of the villains are simplistically portrayed, but viewers see the motivation for one pony’s misdeeds before she ultimately apologizes and tries to make reparations.

Review

A few years ago, I don’t think anybody in their right mind could honestly say they saw this coming. The culture landscape as it has been for at least a decade has been one that almost schizophrenically declares its undying allegiance to continual novelty but is also militantly antagonistic towards anything that doesn’t affirm its own pre-established ideology. Like an attention-deficit toddler, we are forever seeking “change” in even the most fundamental dimensions of our well-established and successful institutions (such as marriage or the family), while also never coming close to tolerating even the slightest hint of alteration in the presuppositions of our novelty-obsessed campaigns.

Who could have honestly predicted that Lauren Faust’s modern reboot of Bonnie Zacherle’s My Little Pony franchise could have become the cultural phenomenon that it is now? I understand that we live in a time in which the niche becoming mainstream is no longer a foreign or infrequent event, but I thought there were some silently agreed-upon limits to what niche markets were allowed to do that. One could have made the argument that the early throes of this unlikely male fanbase for the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic animated series were largely born out of irony, but that is certainly not the case now. Even I am not hesitant to acknowledge that I have been rightly captivated by this special interest, dear reader; and quite genuinely so. While we’re on the subject, let’s get something straight:

Rarity is Best Pony.

With that said, I am very much against my own thoughts here.  There is a part of me still infected with bewilderment conceived from a perspective about 7 years outdated that wonders aloud how we got to the point that an entertainment and toy line exclusively designed with little girls in mind has not only spawned a highly successful animated series that just completed its 7th season, grew into a cultural phenomenon on par with such world events like Pokémon and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but has now received a theatrically released feature-length animated film (that’s NOT CGI!). The part of me that is rightly-but-cynically living in the “now” is sitting wondering quietly why it took us so long to get such a theatrical treatment.

After so many fan conventions, contributions from the remix culture, and an endless deluge of dank internet memes, a feature film to carry on Friendship is Magic’s animated series was pretty much in order from the word “go.” In all honesty, my first wish in this regard is that it had been released sooner. An unfortunate tumor on our cultural mindscape that has garnered much introspection and criticism from the online blogosphere is that of the “toxic fanbase” – fandoms that have become so cliquish and radical in their identity as a supporter of a creative IP that the group as a whole is more akin to a cult or a religious movement than an innocent subculture (it’s funny how etymologically similar “cult” and “culture” are…).

There have been a number of productions in TV animation and indie gaming in recent years that have fallen prey to being burdened with a toxic fanbase (Rick and Morty, Steven Universe, and Five Nights at Freddy’s to give some well-known examples). Friendship is Magic is arguably one of them. It really is depressing when the greatest threat to the success of a franchise is its own fandom. Newcomers are incredibly discouraged from taking interest in the property and being welcomed into the fold, and the fandom itself stagnates and rots into perversion as it develops more and more indecipherable shibboleths to maintain their “identity” and “integrity.” Such subcultural insulation usually takes some time to develop into such virulent levels of myopia and had My Little Pony: The Movie been released prior to that development, it may have been more welcoming to newcomers and less pandering to its pre-existing supporters. But, business is business, and here we are…

Actually, a lot of the decisions here (especially with casting) don’t seem to be very business smart. On one hand, it does make sense that if you’re going to give an animated series the theatrical treatment, you ought to employ more well-known acting luminaries to take on the special roles exclusive to the film. On the other hand, if the film is meant to usher in a new season for the animated series (as it seems it is here), such recruitment of higher class acting talent that will almost certainly not be available when the new season begins development can work against you.

Taking place quite current with the show proper, the movie opens with lead pony Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) exasperatedly fretting over a friendship festival she’s arranging. A major guest of honor is literally just the pony version of Sia, complete with the signature eye-obscuring wig. I can see that being a one-shot deal, but when you having talent like Emily Blunt playing the main antagonist who honestly seems like she’s gonna be around for a while, one might wonder if someone didn’t think things through.

The potentially lingering antagonist in question is one Tempest Shadow, a brooding unicorn with a horn that was damaged long ago. She crashes the friendship festival with demands of complete surrender from the residents of Equestria. She’s accompanied by a feisty sweets-obsessed hedgehog underling named Grubber (Michael Peña) who provides some welcome comical relief throughout the film without being overused, but it is soon revealed that Tempest is actually in service to an even greater Big Bad Evil Overlord in the form of the Storm King (an eclectic Liev Schreiber).

With the ponies dutifully resisting such an overtake, the three leading princesses of Equestria are quickly petrified in stone with Twilight being the one princess that manages to escape capture. What follows is a nearly 2-hour-long game of cat-and-mouse that carries Twilight and her squad of friends across several landscapes in search of a way to undo all of Storm King’s schemes. You can expect there to be some magical MacGuffin to be found and employed at some point, but the real sell here in terms of the plot are a few colorful new additions to the character roster.

Along the way, Twilight and company come across a band of griffin sky pirates (Zoe Saldana as the leader of the troupe) who are galvanized into action by a musical number offered by Twilight’s baby-blue colored pegasus pal Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball). They also come across a smooth-talking feline fellow in a bazaar (Taye Diggs) who might have a few angles of intrigue to him that I’d love to see the show explore. The ultimate prize to defeat the Storm King is supposedly held by a mother-daughter duo of seahorses (Uzo Aduba and Kristin Chenoweth) living in a secluded underwater lair that is bound to provide new opportunities for additions to the toyline.

The plot tying all of this together is rather disappointingly slapdash. Not too many directions taken seemed to be justified from a story perspective, and I found myself losing track of the situation on more than one occasion. The film ends in a way very faithful to the show proper with at least one villain being redeemed and made into possibly a new friend. Redemption of villainy is a running theme in Friendship is Magic–one that I’ve always greatly appreciated. But again, I highly doubt the acting talents behind this charming litter of newcomers will make for comfortable additions to the TV program, so to those who have fallen for these characters, I just advise you to keep an open mind as well as an open ear.

That might be a bit a too much to ask of the Friendship is Magic fanbase. The film seems to have garnered great praise from fans of the show, but largely mixed-to-negative reviews from those not already in that camp. It’s kind of a shame that no matter how much Friendship is Magic as a franchise goes out of its way to try something new, the public resonance will more or less remain as it has been for the last 7 years. No matter what new characters are added, no matter how smoothly the animation production translates from Adobe Flash to the ToonBoom software with a subsequently remarkable improvement in visual finesse, no matter how many celebrity voice actors are brought on board to appeal to a broader audience, the audience remains no more or less broad than before. I’m sure there will be exceptions to this, and God help those exceptions when they learn of “clopping”…

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The Bottom Line

 

Tyrone Barnes

1 Comments

  1. Zero Tolerance on November 4, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    I wanted to take my daughter to see this but it didn’t even show locally except for maybe a week!

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