17 October 2017

Those of you who know me enough also know that I’m a fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. And so, depressingly, I went to see My Little Pony: The Movie on its opening day instead of Blade Runner 2049. Don’t worry, I’ll go see it eventually.

Back to the ponies. In short, that film left me quite disappointed, to say the least. I’d go so far as to say that it pretty much shits on everything that makes the series great, and doesn’t offer anything else in return, with the possible exception of its animation and music… but even that has issues. If you’d like to know more, of more accurately you don’t have anything better to do than to see a grown man rant about a film ostensibly made to sell toys to little girls, well, read on.

So, I really like My Little Pony. It’s cute, inoffensive, light hearted, funny, and it does some really smart things with the constraints of its genre, its brand and the expectations surrounding it. It also presents great role models for young girls, which is something that is really lacking in western society in general. Really, there are way worse ways to spend your time that to have a few dumb laughs watching pastel ponies fix issues through wisdom, courage and friendship. I mean, the whole thing preaches some pretty straightforward points, like for instance that violence is not a proper answer to any problem, that everybody deserves a second chance, and that healthy relationships requires constant communication and plenty of compromises. And while it does make the very American mistake of claiming hard work and dedication is pretty much all that’s required to succeed, it temperates that with the idea that team work is probably as much, if not more, important in all instances. In short, it’s good wholesome fun, and I recommend it to anyone. Just be prepared for the Disney-class songs. And the cheese. A hell of a lot of cheese.

The requisite recap

The film, then, would appear on the surface to be pretty much a longer episode with a bigger budget. And, if you just look at the staff, you’d be right. But there’s something insidious at work here. The film does away with all of the series’ core strenghts and replace those with clichés, bland characters, and overall stands strong as yet another platform to sell shitty toys. Now, here, I’m gonna assume you’ve either already seen the movie, or have no interest in doing so, at which point you’ll have to take everything I say at face value. But hey, if you’ve made it this far, it’s probably okay.

The film is ostensibly a bog standard Heroe’s Journey about a the Mane 6, the main characters of the series, venturing out of Equestria to find help from the hippogriffs after the capital city, Canterlot, is invaded by the army of the Storm King. On their trail is the nefarious Tempest Shadow, a unicorn with a broken horn, has made a deal with the Storm King: collect the magic of the four alicorn princesses to power up his magical staff, and he’ll repair her broken horn and thus “make her whole again”. The leader of the Mane 6, Twilight, is the last free alicorn, so they have plenty of reasons to avoid capture.

Thus begins a road trip outside in the relatively grimdark lands outside of Equestria, where they meet an anthropomorphic cat who tries to sell them as slaves, a bunch of sky pirates turned cargo transporters for the Storm King, and finally the hippogriffs themselves, who they learn have managed to protect their magic from the Storm King by transforming themselves into seaponies with the help of a magical orb and hiding underwater. They’d really want to remain unseen so they don’t want to invest anything in that conflict.

Going totally against her established character traits, Twilight puts everyone into trouble by trying, and then failing, to steal the magical orb. The Mane 6 is then banished from the hippogriffs’ realm, they fight for a bit, Twilight goes on her own and gets quickly captured by Tempest, who sings a song about how friendship is a lie and how relying on others is a bad idea. Geez, where have I heard before…

When the rest of the cast realizes Twlight is missing, guess who shows up? All the minor characters previously encountered, who have decided to help because the ponies are the only ones who’ve ever showed them kindness. Cue the “storm the castle” sequence. The big finale occurs when the Storm King unleashes the full power of his magical staff, predictably backstabs Tempest, and then gets defeated by the power of friendship. Well, technically he gets destroyed when his own magic his redirected at him, but whatever.

Also that staff automagically repairs the damage, so the friendship festival everyone was working on can resume as if nothing happened. Then Sia sings a song and The End.

Let’s fix things up

What a load of horseshit. But it’s not that simple. So let’s review what sucks, why it sucks, and what we can do about it.

1. Too many characters

The film tries to cram new minor characters in every nook and cranny, probably so that Hasbro can then sell shitty plastic figurines based on them. The problem is that the film does not have the runtime to meaningfully develop those characters into something that isn’t just a bunch of generic clichés: the cat burglar, the sky pirates, the attention-starved princess, there is definitely something that could be done with those, but nothing is. Worse, they end up stealing attention from the main cast, who, aside from Twilight, has very few lines and seems to mostly exist for comic relief.

More on that later. For now, let’s focus on the worst offender in the area of wasted potential: Tempest Shadow. The film could, and should abosolutely have been about her. Her backstory is barely given, and what we do have is some generic bullshit about her being ostracized for not having a fully functional horn, which is weird considering the setting. She could have had better motivations, some interesting reason to hate her horn and herself. She hints that she used to be really good at some things, but the abilities she displays with in her current state are pretty impressive, and it doesn’t seem to really prevent her from achieving great success at everything she attempts.

If it were me, I’d make it so she is ashamed of what her horn represents, as it is great power without focus. Maybe she has hurt people close to her, and so she has decided that friends are a liability in her current state. Hell, she shoots fucking lightning that arcs everywhere, that’s bound to do some serious collateral damage, don’t you think? At the very least, it’d make everyone scared of her. This would have led her to a solitary existence and a general distrust of others.

2. Cardboard villain

The Storm King is a disappointement disguised as a villain. It’s an hackeneyed attempt at having a clear and identifiable evil besides the more neutral Tempest in an attempt to avoid any potential quagmire. The Storm King appears as a generic bad guy who wants to rule the world for the lulz and who gets brutally murdered at the end without getting even the slightest hint of a second chance. And just to make it really black and white, he technically kills himself while attempting to exact revenge on Twilight; which at the same time gives Tempest an occasion to redeem herself through self-sacrifice. As such, the good guys get to keep the moral high ground while the bad guy just disappears off with no lasting consequences. How convenient.

Really, what a sad sack of shit. And before you say that kids show shouldn’t have morally ambiguous characters, well, My Little Pony is full of these. In fact, most villains end up turning good after they’re shown the magic of friendship. Luna, Discord, the Changelings, Starlight Glimmer and even Equestria Girls’ Sunset Shimmer all started off as bad guys who realized the errors of their ways and became much more interesting as they tried to make amends. I’d go so far as to say that Discord is my favorite character precisely because of his development. The series even explores the possibility of good characters turning evil because of their inner demons taking over (such as Daybreaker being a corrupted version of Celestia), showing that nobody is entirely on one side of the spectrum. In MLP, most characters change and evolve over time, usually for the better, with only three flat villains to date: Chrysalis, King Sombra and Tirek.

Chrysalis is kind of a bummer because there could have been so much more done with her. In the end, when the entire Changeling race gets redeemed, she refuses to change and gets left behind. I hope they come back to it. I mean, she’s an emotion sucking vampire, she could just learn the value of being nice so people freely give you their love and friendship instead of you having to steal it from them. That plot practically writes itself.

Sombra is an interesting case because he has zero lines, no backstory, and seems to mostly exist as a physical manifestation of a natural disaster. He’s a problem with a face. The Crystal Empire could have been threatened by just the snow storm around it and it would have made zero difference in the long run.

Tirek is my least favorite villain. His grudge against Celestia and his relationship with his brother could have been better explored, but ultimately they wanted a standard issue superpowered evil so they could have a Dragonball finale where laser blasts get rudely exchanged and everything explodes.

And in the end, the Storm King looks like Tirek but with even less motivation, no real goal, and who poses no real threat to the ponies. What I would have done to improve things? Do away with the Storm King entirely. No, I’m serious. This is Tempest Shadow’s story, and she deserves the full attention. One idea, off the top of my head, would be to make the real problem some kind of looming disaster, like a literal storm (get it?). Tempest could actually be trying to stop it, but since she doesn’t trust others, she steals the alicorns’ magic. When her spell fails because the magic isn’t as strong when it is stolen as it is when freely given, she crumbles into a sad mess. This gives Twilight and the rest of the gang the opportunity to show kindness to Tempest, and then you can have a kickass shot of every single important character lend their power to her so she can blast the issue into nothingness. Then we have a party.

That does mean that the entire plot hinges on a misunderstanding, but it evolves Tempest Shadow from “brooding teenager” to “well intentioned extremist”. Maybe she doesn’t want to ask for help because she thinks others are useless and unreliable. Maybe she can’t really articulate what’s going on because she was alone for so long that she doesn’t know how to just fucking say something when she needs to.

Of course there’s probably way better ideas out there, but I really believe the story would have been greatly improved by removing its main villain.

3. Heavy compression

The Mane 6, aside from Twilight, are a huge waste of space. They contribute little of value to the plot and seem to look more like abstract facsimiles who only serve to distribute verbal tics and predictable jokes. A lot of the things they do don’t even correspond to what you’d expect to see based on their appearance in the series, even whithout the pile of character development they have received over the years. I’m exaggerating slightly, of course: there are a few cases where they do contribute their particular sets of skills. For instance, it is Rarity who fixes Capper’s coat, it is Rainbow Dash who restores the pirates’ pride, and it is Pinkie Pie who befriends the princess of the hippogriffs. The intent was clearly to have each character recruit support in their own way, but this falls short. Notably, Applejack and Fluttershy are barely present in the film. There’s even a sequence where Fluttershy is scared by bats, whereas the series shows multiple times that she loves all animals, regardless of their shape, size or behavior.

But this apparent contradiction pales in comparison to the moment where Twilight Sparkle, princess of friendship and upstandiest of the upstanding citizens of Equestria, attempts to steal the hippogriffs’ magical orb. The fuck. This is pure character assassination at this point. No amount of urgency can explain her behavior considering what was already established. The only reason she does this is so she then has a reason to stand alone so Tempest can kidnap her. It’s the same reason why Rainbow performs a Sonic Rainboom earlier in the film despite this being an incredibly stupid decision. Just to be clear, Rainbow Dash never was the kind of person in the series to wantonly unleash the Rainboom just for the sake of it. But here she does it, and why? So Tempest and her goons can spot the ponies and pursue them. Those two go against their established character traits just so the plot can go where the writers want it to go. It’s lazy, it’s forced, and I’m sure there could be other ways for Tempest to track them down.

All of that combined with the glossing over of the new minor characters leads me to believe that the plot was meant to be way longer than the actual runtime of the film, but the budget wasn’t available, so the plot rushes at breakneck speed in an attempt to show all these fancy cool things that are going to be turned into plastic crap to overload the shelves just in time for Black Friday.

So what now?

To be clear, I don’t think it’s a terrible film. As unchallenging popcorn entertainment for kids, it’s not exactly garbage. And in isolation, it’s not so bad for a children’s film. But Friendship is Magic made me realize that a kids’ show, even one that is ostensibly a marketing vessel for a brand of toys, doesn’t have to be unengaging and bland. It can be intellectually stimulating. It can teaches valuable lessons. It can aspire for greatness. But the suits at Hasbro decided to phone it in, and that’s the real tragedy here. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying the series. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is still a great piece of animation. I can’t wait for the second half of season 7 to pop up on Netflix so I can binge that at my leisure.

And there’s still some things the film does well. For instance, body movement, especially facial expressions, are really well animated, down to way characters’ mouths move while singing or talking. It’s pretty impressive. The lighting is somewhat off, however, with things being usually a little too dark. Looking at it, it seems like they used a 3D ligthing model on top of 2D art. For example, the ponies look like their manes are actually casting shadows on their eyes, which looks super weird considering how large they are. And the aforementioned dark colors gives the whole film a somewhat gritty vibe that doesn’t mesh very well with the setting. But even thought the colors are somewhat wrong, the way everything moves is really cool, and I have to give credit for that.

Also effective is the soundtrack. I have a soft spot for cheesy Disney-style songs, and My Little Pony is full of those. The movie didn’t disappoint in this regard. Sure, the lyrics are dumb as a brick, but whatever, it’s still catchy and they got stuck in my head nearly instantly.

So, anyway, that’s a fuckton of words about My Little Pony: The Movie. I didn’t know I had that in me. But hey, I guess it compensates for that over a year long hiatus, hm?

At this point I can’t promise if I’ll be writing on any kind of schedule, but I can at least guarantee that there’s going to be something at the end of the year about what I’ve done in 2017, and who knows, maybe something in the meantime about Extra Life, which I’ll be doing again.

See you all on the other side.