Sunday, September 1, 2013

Second Opinion - My Little Pony: Equestria Girls

While I am a big fan of the Transformers franchise, despite its various ups and downs over the years, and I've dabbled somewhat in the G.I. Joe universe before, with plans to watch Renegades and Resolute in the future, I will also admit to watching My Little Pony, specifically the most recent iteration, Friendship is Magic, incepted by Lauren Faust (wife of Craig McCracken of The Powerpuff Girls fame). If I were typing this at an earlier point in time since the show premiered, I would have considered myself a “brony”, but to be honest I am not digging recent material, namely the entirety of Season 3 and the accompanying comics released by IDW Publishing (although the recent Cutie Mark Crusaders Micro-Series comic proved itself to be a true diamond in the rough by my standards), to the point where, like my brother, I am on the brink of being disillusioned by Friendship is Magic as a whole. One of the major problems I have, aside from the declining writing quality across the board, is the series’ obsession with pop culture references as opposed to focusing on telling a solid story. Granted, things like the current Deadpool comic run by Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan can pull this off and still be hilarious, and references are fine if it’s a natural part of the universe in some way, such as with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and naming characters/fighting moves after artists/songs/albums in music, but My Little Pony seems currently so stuffed with them, and putting disproportionate emphasis on fandom nods, that I audibly groan every time they come up (unless they’re subtle such as with IDW’s Transformers output).

Dio Brando from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure
(Part 1: Phantom Blood).

Anyway, when it was announced that there would be a feature film written by veteran Friendship is Magic writer Meghan McCarthy titled Equestria Girls, made to compete with Mattel’s popular Monster High property, I became somewhat curious about it, but a little thrown back by the concept of humanized ponies present in official canon material, let alone it being set in a high school. The first trailer released online did not help matters at all, as I cringed at how cliché the concept appeared (the second trailer, while better, still did not entirely sell me on the concept). Despite this, I decided to watch the movie anyway during its theatrical run, mainly so I could form my own opinion and not be influenced by those of others. When I was watching, I think I had the wrong audience since it consisted mostly of die-hard fans who simply would not shut up, especially when a favorite background character of theirs popped up on screen, which no doubt confused any of the few audience members who were actual children. The sound quality didn’t really help matters, since it was very much presented in mono (one speaker). While I didn’t like the movie anyway, I decided to watch it again during its recent broadcast on The Hub network (which broadcasts the soon-to-be-concluding Transformers: Prime), if only so I could actually hear everything the way it was intended (my sound system at home is very much not mono). However, unlike Thor where it’s better once you can actually see everything, this movie isn’t any better even if you can actually hear it.

Spoiler Note: This movie takes place after the Friendship is Magic Season 3 finale, “Magical Mystery Cure”, so there will be unmarked spoilers regarding the episode. If you care about this sort of thing, please stop reading right now. You have been warned.

Following the events of “Magical Mystery Cure” (get it?), Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) is now a Princess, and she and her friends arrive at the Crystal Empire so Twilight can attend a meeting there with Princesses Celestia (Nicole Oliver), Luna (Tabitha St. Germain), and Cadance (Britt McKillip) the next day. While they are sleeping, a mysterious unicorn enters Twilight’s room to steal her crown, but she is spotted after tripping over Twilight’s dragon assistant, Spike (Cathy Weseluck), and everyone runs after her. However, it is too late and the crown and thief vanish through a magic mirror portal. It is then revealed that the thief is actually a former pupil of Princess Celestia’s named Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet), and Twilight has to go through the mirror to stop her in another world. However, she has to recover the crown fast, since the portal will close soon and will remain closed for another thirty moons (or ~2.5 years, assuming they mean a “moon” to be a full moon cycle); also her friends can’t follow her, lest they upset some sort of strange cosmological balance. Twilight soon jumps through the portal, with Spike following after her, where she ends up in another world in the form of a human, with Spike taking on the appearance of a dog. Not only does Twilight have to get her crown back, but she must also get used to her new form as well.

Twilight Sparkle getting used to her new human body.

The idea of Twilight Sparkle dimension hopping leaves open a lot of possibilities, including several different types of plots that could have been explored to make Equestria Girls more exciting. However, the end result  is, to put it bluntly, so cliché that it hurts, almost physically. Much like how Cars 2 is every spy movie imaginable, Equestria Girls’ plot mostly follows the structure of nearly every high school movie plot ever constructed, although even saying that might be giving it too much credit. Sub-plots come out of nowhere only to be dropped soon after, making them utterly pointless and only serve to make you say “There’s that scene”. The movie also can’t seem to stay consistent with itself for more than 5 minutes, since one statement or event is often made only to be contradicted by another almost immediately afterwards; for example, Princess Celestia tells Twilight Sparkle in one early scene that she doesn’t know much about the other world, yet a few minutes later seems to display an awful lot of knowledge about how the space-time continuum works, using that as the basis for why Twilight’s friends couldn’t join her. Not helping this are numerous plot holes that the story proper doesn’t even attempt to address, though going into too much detail on that would create spoilers.

The characters themselves also leave something to be desired. When Twilight Sparkle reaches the human world, she happens to find other people who not only share the same names as her friends, but are also just like them down to personality and skin tones (which really just brings up comparisons to Nickelodeon’s Doug). I know this is an alternate universe, but I have a hard time swallowing that a more realistic human world would only have people whose real names are Fluttershy (Andrea Libman) or Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) or whatever; perhaps they would have been better off if they were somehow just sort of nicknames (this was probably to be more like Monster High, but from what I've read it appears to be based in more of a fantasy horror setting, so the names there are more excusable). As for personalities, the human versions of existing characters are so much like their pony counterparts that, like a remake of an already good movie, you start to wonder what exactly the point was. Human Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball) is pretty much still pony Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball) and human Applejack (Ashleigh Ball) is exactly like pony Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), so it comes across as more repetitive of the show proper (Friendship is Magic), not taking into account scenes already recycled from the original show. The original characters of Sunset Shimmer and Flash Sentry (Vincent Tong), on the other hand, seem very underdeveloped for what they’re worth. Sunset Shimmer, the main villain who has a name eerily similar to Twilight Sparkle’s, is a one-dimensional, self-centered, unsympathetic jerk who is so cardboard that 80’s cartoon villains seem more three-dimensional by comparison and her 180 at the end seems so forced as to be unbelievable. Flash Sentry, on the other hand, is so generic that literally any other character could have taken his place and things would have played out exactly the same way; his only real purpose is so Twilight could have a love interest, which is one thing that the show the movie is based on was actively trying to avoid.

Pictured: The cast of Equestria Girls.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the animation of the movie is actually rather decent, showing improvement over the source material, especially over earlier episodes. I can’t say anything that would significantly knock down the animation, since even more subtle movements are animated well for being done in Flash (though guitar playing could’ve been done better), but the art style of the human world deserves some flak. For the most part, everyone has the same body type as the next guy, and on top of that nearly every character is rail thin, much like a Barbie or Ken doll. I know that most pony characters back in Equestria have similar character models, but if you’re trying to go for a human world more akin to real life, there should be more variety in body types, much like a real high school would. Oddly, footwear also seems to be a permanent fixture of human anatomy in this universe, which is weird when you see people having changed clothes between scenes. At least you can say the movie was animated well.

Pictured: Rarity, a perfect example of what humans normally look like.

The voice acting is also good, especially when it comes to more familiar characters from Friendship is Magic. I’m not sure if the voice actors themselves also found the script to be lackluster, but it’s clear they are at least making the most out of the lines they were given to read. The voice actors for new characters Sunset Shimmer and Flash Sentry also seem to make the most out of what they have, pulling off decent performances despite what they had to say, though I can’t help but feel they were given the short end of the stick on this production; hopefully if they return in Season 4 of Friendship is Magic, they are handed better scripts to read from. As for the music by William Anderson and Daniel Ingram, there is no doubt that they put their best into it, though Daniel Ingram’s compositions don’t really reach any more new highs than they already have in the original show. However, the sheer number of songs in this movie seems like nothing more than padding, no matter how good they may be, though as a fan of electronic music, I thought the remix of the Friendship is Magic theme present in the movie wasn’t very good (I wasn’t thinking it should be like Daft Punk or Deadmau5, who are within my personal top 5, but it still could’ve been a whole lot better).

Though it is better than Flash Sentry's (left) guitar playing.
(Also, I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure he's holding a bass.)

Now my brother has already gone into great detail about the fandom nods and references present in his original review of the movie, though I still have a couple of things to say regarding this. Within the first scenes of the movie, Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman) curls into a ball while explaining a made-up word, only to uncurl soon after to a transformation sound present in the Transformers franchise. When I heard this for the first time in a theater, I honestly thought it was coming from someone else’s cell phone (incidentally it’s a sound I even have on mine, though I had my phone off the whole time), but then I learned it was actually an actual part of the actual movie, which I found weird when associated with a pink cartoon horse (although when I gained this knowledge, the sound itself instantly became my favorite part of the movie, since it reminded me of better things). As for the amount of references and nods, there actually seemed to be fewer of them upon my second viewing, mainly because the TV version actually removes at least two scenes, likely for time constraints, one of which had a rather pointless cameo from Trixie (Kathleen Barr in the theatrical version, Snake Eyes in the TV version), and another of which contained its own pointless cameo from the Cutie Mark Crusaders: Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo (Michelle Creber, Claire Corlett, and Madeleine Peters respectively in the theatrical version, all also Snake Eyes in the TV version). Removing the latter scene also creates yet another plot hole, but let’s not get into that right now.

Even after a second viewing with clearer audio, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls is a train wreck of a movie with not much to show for it. Though the animation, music, and voice acting have their upsides, the writing is rather sub-par and the world presented in the movie is very unbelievable, even by Friendship is Magic standards. Meghan McCarthy’s skills as a writer may have proven themselves in earlier episodes of the show (before Lauren Faust’s departure), but perhaps she could have at least done more revising on the script for this movie before it was sent out for recording. I have no doubt that some fans will continue to defend this movie despite all its faults, but it still failed to impress me. I would still recommend watching this movie at least once, if only so you can have your own opinion of the movie.

Later this year, the story of Transformers: Prime will reach its conclusion with a TV movie called Predacons Rising, which I am looking forward to seeing and will review once I do. Based on what little I’ve seen and heard about it at a panel from this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I have high hopes that it will turn out a lot better than this mess of a movie.

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