My Little Pony: The Movie. Directed by Jayson Thiessen. Written by Joe Ballarini, Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao, and Michael Vogel. Lionsgate and Allspark Pictures, 2017. 99 minutes. Rated PG. CNS Rating is A-I, General Patronage.
That being said, I honestly don’t know what the complaints are about. I thought this was a great movie. My only (mild) criticisms are that none of the musical numbers are among the franchise’s catchiest, and some of the animation could be better, but aside from that, this is a fine, if not exactly stunning, children’s film. Looking at a few of the negative reviews, I get the distinct impression that the critics are turning up their noses not because it’s a bad movie per se, but simply because it’s My Little Pony.
However, in my humble opinion, this may be the best thing ever to come out of the franchise. I daresay this is the first time My Little Pony has come close to living up to its potential.
My Little Pony has been in existence since the 1980s, when it early on became a household name. The toys—a seemingly endless array of cheap, pastel-colored plastic horses with brushable hair—saw adaptation into a couple of television specials and a 1986 theatrical film (also called My Little Pony: The Movie) followed by two television series, My Little Pony n’ Friends and My Little Pony Tales.
All of that composes the most massive phase of the franchise’s history, which its fans call G1 (for “generation one”). Following this was the comparatively brief G2 and then the long-running G3, which in addition to a sizable toy franchise saw an array of straight-to-video productions.
Then in 2010 came G4, beginning with the television series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, still ongoing and now the longest-running media adaptation in the franchise’s history. It is the brainchild of animator Lauren Faust, who created it at Hasbro’s behest as part of the lineup for the company’s (now defunct) television channel, The Hub. The Hub is dead, but My Little Pony lives on. It has even spawned a magical girl/fashion doll spin-off, Equestria Girls, which has seen a line of limited-release movies. The new My Little Pony: The Movie represents the first time the ponies have enjoyed a wide-release film in just over thirty years.
Before the aberration that is My Little Pony Tales, which is its own stand-alone series, the G1 media spinoffs formed a fantasy adventure. In the specials, the movie, and each episode of My Little Pony n’ Friends, the ponies and their Mary Sue human companion Megan would explore new, exotic locales or face off against an array of formidable villains. The series was deeply flawed: the animation and writing were both poor, and every episode featured an utterly execrable musical number. My Little Pony n’ Friends starts off with a twelve-part story that’s meant to be a sprawling epic, but quickly devolves into a mess.
If I may make it personal, I used to watch My Little Pony n’ Friends as a child. I was so young that I don’t remember it well, but a few years ago I saw it as an adult and recognized a lot of it, so I must have watched it regularly as a kid. I have long believed that goofy cartoon characters make the best protagonists for fantasy epics, and thus I also believe that My Little Pony has an untapped potential: whether intentionally or not, it gives a compelling vision of these pastel-colored talking horses as a tiny, idyllic island of tranquility surrounded by a world of horror. In Dream Valley, ponies slide down rainbows and chase butterflies and lick each other (except in the Disney Channel syndication where they cut that part out), but the moment the ponies step out of their valley, everything is out to kill or enslave them.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has the quality writing that G1 lacked. It’s Flash-animated with a minimalist art style that is decidedly inappropriate for a fantasy series set in Fairyland, but the animation is nonetheless superior to that of its predecessors. However, in spite of its potential (and in part because of executive meddling), Friendship is Magic has for the most part limited itself to stand-alone, slice-of-life episodes focusing on its protagonists’ daily lives in their rural town of Ponyville. Its occasional adventure stories are relatively brief. Although it is unquestionably superior in quality, it lacks the sprawl or the freewheeling imagination of the original.
Friendship is Magic has spawned a large, unlikely fandom, the “Bronies,” made up mostly of teenage boys and young men. The fandom came into existence in the dark pits of 4chan, and the reasons why are murky. There appear to be several draws, none of them necessarily exclusive: some guys seem to like it in an ironic, hipster-like fashion (it’s cool because it’s uncool); some are professionally or academically interested in animation and appreciate its production values; and some simply seem to be infatuated with its giggly protagonists. Some have even said that they don’t care much for the show itself, but enjoy the fandom because of its energy, creativity, and sense of community.
I think there is an additional draw, one which pertains to the franchise as a whole but is clearest in G4, one we might call spiritual. Some fans long for the world of the ponies the same way others long for the worlds of Narnia or Middle Earth. My Little Pony offers an occasional glimpse of something larger than itself: It has that sense of mythopoeia, myth-making, as Tolkien called it. The show’s opening credits sequence features a montage of idyllic landscapes, climaxing with the image of a white unicorn seated on a golden throne with a font of living water springing from its base—a Christological image, whether the show’s creators know it or not. The ponies live in peace and have all of nature at their command. Underneath the schlock and product placement, My Little Pony is like a vision of Eden, of man’s lost homeland, and some of the Bronies seem to recognize it, at least on an emotional level.
The 2017 My Little Pony: The Movie has retained the strengths of G4 while incorporating the strengths of G1. It is the best of both worlds: it offers a swashbuckling adventure story with exotic locales and an array of fantastical creatures, but with the superior production and lovable cast of Friendship is Magic.
The story is relatively simple and plays out by the numbers, which is partly why critics have taken the opportunity to hate on it. But even though it’s not a unique story, it’s a competently produced one. As the film opens, the ponies are doing what it is ponies do: planning a party. Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), princess of friendship, is in the capital city of Canterlot where she is putting the finishing touches on the preparations for the Friendship Festival. As usual, she’s stressed out, in particular because the festival will see a performance by the hugely popular Songbird Serenade (guest appearance by Australian pop diva Sia).
The Frendship Festival is rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of a menacing airship, on board which are troll-like thugs and their icy commander Tempest Shadow, a unicorn with a scarred face and a broken horn, played with convincing menace by Emily Blunt. Tempest intends to conquer Equestria on behalf of a villain who calls himself the Storm King (Liev Schreiber), who has promised to repair her horn if she can steal for him the magic of the pony princesses.
Backed up by an army of heavies and armed with some magical grenades, Tempest turns three of the four princesses to stone, but Twilight Sparkle escapes with her baby dragon sidekick Spike (Cathy Weseluck) and her five pony friends. Together, they flee Equestria through the Badlands in search of the queen of the hippogriffs, who may have the power to save the ponies from the invaders. Naturally, the ponies’ friendship is sorely tested, but friendship wins out in the end—because, after all, friendship is magic.
The first good move they made with this film was beefing up the design and animation. While maintaining continuity with the look and feel of the television show, the movie fills in all the solid spaces in the backgrounds with new detail. The ponies’ capital city of Canterlot has never looked so good. Compare:
This alone was enough to get me interested in the film: Canterlot is a great concept, a fairy castle overhanging a cliff, and the art style of the television series simply can’t do it justice. Canterlot finally gets what it deserves in this movie … although the castle seems to have shrunk … actually, it looks like they bulldozed half of it to make room for a parade ground.
And not only does the story not limit itself to Ponyville, but Ponyville doesn’t even show up in the movie at all. The ponies quickly leave Equestria behind, make their way through a vast desert, and reach a jumbled city that looks like something out of Mad Max, where a motley mob of menacing anthropomorphic animals try to capture them and sell them into slavery. They encounter a smooth-talking cat named Capper (Taye Diggs) and soon after stow away on the airship of a crew of parrot pirates, all while Tempest and her minions are in hot pursuit.
In addition to greatly increasing G4’s array of fantasy creatures, the movie also ups the steampunkery with its focus on airships. Unfortunately, the large-scale airship battle I hoped for is absent, but at least the film confirms the existence of air pirates in the My Little Pony universe.
Although competent, the movie is not perfect. There are several musical numbers, and they’re good, but none are equal to the best from the show. There is also a curious lack of consistency in the animation. The ponies look as if they were lifted, with very little touch-up, right out of the TV program, whereas the movie-original characters look as if they’ve wandered in out of a Disney film. The ponies, who look like plastic toys, don’t appear to be occupying the same space as everything else. Also, the airships are done in mediocre CGI that doesn’t blend with the lavishly rendered backgrounds. I dig the movie’s more lavish look, but it’s not quite there yet.
These, however, are minor flaws. The story’s well handled and moves at a fast pace without feeling rushed. It is written in such a way that it is both enjoyable for fans and accessible to newcomers: I haven’t paid attention to My Little Pony for a few years, but didn’t feel as if I’d missed anything, and the person I saw the movie with wasn’t familiar with the franchise at all, but said she didn’t have any difficulty keeping track of the characters or following the plot.
Easily the movie’s strongest point is Tempest. The Storm King for whom she works is mostly a joke character, but Tempest is easily the best villain I’ve seen in the franchise. Unlike most, she has a good backstory and a compelling reason for her actions, and Emily Blunt delivers one of the movie’s best performances.
Whether the film is worth it will depend on individual interest. It’s strong enough as an entry in a much-loved franchise, but probably not quite strong enough to create new fans. Unless you’re a Brony or have kids, it might not warrant the price of the theater tickets, but it’s certainly worth a rental when it’s out on video.