Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Big Adventure, Little Fun

Perhaps I should explain myself on this one. For the past two or so years, I have been a fan of the television series known as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Thanks to my friends, and countless pictures on the internet (particularly DeaviantArt), I decided to give it a shot while Season One was still airing on the Hub network. After watching a couple episodes, I ended up getting sucked into the whole thing, fandom included, and eventually accepted the fact that I had become a fan of something that, at first glance, appears to be made for little girls. I suppose that would make me what the internet has chosen to identify as a "brony"...

Wait, where are you going?

...but that label has become less applicable with time. You see, when I first got into the fandom, it was in the good way, like, it felt pretty cool. Some of my friends were also fans and it was a little fun to find out just who else was into this show. However, it's also been quite interesting to watch something gradually go from a simple fascination into some uncontrollable obsession. Over time I've seen the fandom, the same one that I am still a part of mind you, do some pretty crazy things to the point where my last visit to San Diego Comic-Con, way back in 2012, saw various parts of the experience get absolutely pulverized by cosplayers, people buying WeLoveFine shirts in droves, others standing in line for panels and signings and, perhaps worst of all, effectively hijacking the Hasbro Toy Shop booth by relentlessly utilizing a "scorched earth" strategy to buy as many copies as possible of My Little Pony 2012 Special Edition Pony (the max was three and it was only $20, so do the math there). It was an absolute nightmare to have to deal with bronies at the convention, which was but another straw on the camel's back, as it eventually caused me to have to buy the aforementioned toy off Ebay later at an inflated price. The final straw has yet to be placed onto that metaphorical camel, but the pile has already been building up, each new straw piercing me in yet another new way to gradually lead to my disillusionment.

As that dark future has yet to hit, I'm, again, still a part of the fandom, but I haven't been as enthusiastic as I once was. I'll still watch the show and read the comics that have come out, and I have participated by writing fan fiction and speculating on the franchise's future, but that is not without its caveats. I am under the personal belief that since near the end of Season Two of the show, or perhaps even before that (which, coincidentally, happens to be the time Lauren Faust dropped out entirely), the writers have been tanking it by including reference after reference in an attempt to pander to the fanbase, which, as a result, has been contributing to the show runners really not knowing who to appeal to; the balance between kid and adult demographic appeal has been lost in favor of the sudden periphery. I read the comics, but I feel that none of them have been really all that good due to the invisible "reference war" between IDW and DHX Media, in which the winner is the one who can shove the most references into a single space without batting an eye. The first four-issue arc of the comic, for instance, has a plot that is uncannily close to that of Avatar: The Last Airbender's overall dealings with Sozin's Comet and there have been parts where the characters literally do nothing but stand around making references. The amount of references is simply astounding, but not in a way that has impressed me, and the only issues I actually have liked, because they actually focused on telling a story, have been issues five to seven and Micro-Series: Fluttershy.

At this point, I'd consider myself more of a collector, since I've been buying a select number of the toys and use the popular fandom site Equestria Daily as more of a toy catalog (Hello, EQD Bronies!). I've come a long way from my origins as a fan, but time has yet to claim me as a lost member; it probably has a long way to go.

Then along came news of a movie being made based on this incarnation of the franchise. To my surprise, it turned out to be a story that sees the ponies in human form. While, yes, the fandom has created "humanized" artwork and stories over its lifetime, the prospect of there being a canon movie surrounding this concept was actually a little disturbing. As production went along, I realized that I really didn't like the character designs, thanks to them sharing very similar silhouettes, and new details regarding the plot didn't really help to win me over. I was never that enthusiastic about the project to begin with, but then the very first trailer came out and managed to further cripple any hope I might have had.

My reaction to the first trailer.

Even when the second trailer came out, my hopes weren't raised any higher; the damage had already been done. I began to speculate that the movie would just be filled with one high school cliché after another and eventually have a completely unsatisfying payoff. The idea of Spike being a talking dog, let alone a dog in the first place, and the knowledge that there would be no less than six songs wasn't doing me any favors, especially considering that I thought that that last one got in the way of the third season finale.

If Spike did this then, it would have immediately redeemed his character.

Since I try to exercise the tenet of "don't knock it 'til you try it", tickets were pre-purchased for the most convenient showing, which happened to be today, aka the last weekend of the movie's rotating theatrical runs. When we were able to get into the theater and find some good seats, I was a bit surprised to find out that the film was literally being broadcast from a DVD, which was somewhat questionable until I remembered that these screenings were really more of a glorified showing of a made-for-TV/direct-to-video movie anyway. Not only that, but there were two other obstacles which affected my movie-going experience: the sound and the audience. The movie was played in Mono, so I think there was only one speaker playing the sound, which robbed me of some of the effect that could have been there. The audience, on the other hand, was exactly as I had feared. It was an uneven mixture of both demographics, but once again the periphery took over, and they were definitely not afraid to blatantly ignore the rules of theater etiquette, which means that I may need to watch the movie again in an alternate format so I can actually hear what was being said.

Well, I've delayed this long enough, and you probably just want to know what I think of the movie itself. To tell you the truth, I went in with very low expectations, figuring that it would be reference overdosed, topped with high school clichés and a side helping of fandom nods. After I walked out of the theater, when all was said and done, I realized...I was right.

Spoiler Note: Due to the nature of this movie, there will be unmarked spoilers regarding the events of the third season finale, "Magical Mystery Cure". Don't say I didn't warn you.

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls follows the events of the Friendship is Magic episode "Magical Mystery Cure", with Twilight Sparkle now an Alicorn Princess. She is summoned to Canterlot for a summit with Princesses Celestia, Luna and Cadance, though they are going to have it the next day. During the night, Twilight's tiara crown is stolen by a unicorn named Sunset Shimmer. In the ensuing chase, the crown is knocked into a magic portal, Sunset Shimmer escaping into it. Given the situation at hand, it is revealed that the portal leads to an alternate dimension and that it opens "once every thirty moons" (which is about two and a half years if a "moon" is a normal moon cycle). Twilight alone must venture inside, for fear of upsetting the balance between worlds, and retrieve the crown to restore order to her world. She ends up going through, Spike in tow, and discovers that she has been transformed into a human and Spike is now a dog. Humanity ensues.

I don't like it any better than you do, Twilight.

While the premise sounds not entirely unlike the show, the execution of the plot leaves something to be desired. The concept of an alternate dimension is something I'm fine with, although it's one of those plots that makes me wonder if they've run out of ideas, but the location of the portal seems all too convenient for use and the knowledge of what it is and what it does feels like they knew quite a bit about inter-dimensional travel and its effect on the space-time, which can bring up quite a few questions on that issue (though I do know now how Twilight fits in as a temporal object). Actually, I think I found the word that would describe this plot: convenient. It's convenient that Twilight would just happen to end up in a world where all of her friends happen to exist and, barring the fact that the name of the high school she ends up in happens to have a familiar name, this world just happens to share the exact same naming conventions, which just feels plain weird. Of course, I also found that the problem was solved in an even more convenient way, since not only does Sunset Shimmer not use the extremely advanced technology the human world has (compared with Equestria of course) to carry out her plan, she seems to make her plan easily destructible. When her overall plan is revealed in the end, there are so many threads that she had forgotten to consider, which made me ask to myself "okay, what now?" Finally, there's the fact that the final battle at the end is concluded rather abruptly with no buildup and just left me confused. It should also be noted that, thanks in part to the story and audience, I remained pretty much stone-faced throughout the entire film.

The characterization for everyone is very spot-on, but perhaps maybe a little too much in that direction. There's nothing added to give the impression that they are any different from their equine counterparts, but the real prize has to go to Sunset Shimmer, an original character who wins for being disappointing. At first impression, I really had no idea what to expect from her, but then she turns out to be a rather bland villain. She's ambitious in that she wants revenge on Princess Celestia, though this ambition was born out of being unreasonable and her plan depends entirely on petty acts, destruction of property aside, not being reversed by some fortune; in other words, her plan required everyone to be stupid. As a high schooler, she's even worse, since her image is that of a complete bitch and never ever straying from that path. Really, there is no clever way of establishing that she acts this way aside from belittling someone for no discernible reason.

Sunset Shimmer (right) in her natural habitat.

If there's one thing I can give praise to, it would be the animation. Never let it be said that I don't like the animation of Friendship is Magic. DHX Media did a great job here, with movement that looks smooth and shows that fluidity in My Little Pony's animation has come quite a long way from the first season of the show. The attention to detail is also quite admirable and there are some character quirks which translate well to each scene. However, if you'll allow me, there are still a couple of things that bug me. On a minor note, as a guitarist, I think that the character Flash Sentry, who becomes known for playing said instrument, is terrible at it, since they could only animate him playing a single string and a couple of bends (I know this isn't Metalocalypse, but I at least expected a chord or something). The other thing is more major, and that would be the character designs. To put it bluntly, there appear to only be a couple of character models used for every character, male or female. Yes, there are a couple here and there who have something unique to them, but for the most part they are a little too similar. The "Main 6" even have silhouettes that are almost exactly the same, which is to say nothing about the odd doll-like anatomy and the amazing technicolor skin tones which remind me of Nickelodeon's Doug.

This should illustrate my point.

As I mentioned before, the sound of the movie was presented in Mono, so my opinion of the following is based on the unfortunate lack of a second speaker. Despite this limitation, the voice acting I think was pretty good, but that's because it's the exact same voice cast from the parent series. I've always been good with this, but that's because it's never been bad. As mentioned in our previous Despicable Me review, it's a little difficult at times to tell when voice acting is good, but I think emotional range would be a good contributing factor. There is some range, but only for what exists for each character, so I don't have more to say there. As for the music, I thought the songs were just all right. A couple of them do advance the plot, while others still are mere background music, but it's also pretty much par for the course for Daniel Ingram's composing. There's nothing that really stands out if only because his quality has been mostly consistent.

Finally, there's one particular subject that I was deathly afraid of coming to pass, and yet this beast decided to rear its ugly head: fandom nods (for the periphery of course). Fandom nods are a tricky thing to handle. When a series decides to do them, they need to be done in a way that doesn't get in the way of the plot, so it's best to do it where it's subtle, but whoever knows what it's referencing will get a chuckle. While Transformers has recently been doing a ton of these in the Prime cartoon, they have all followed the tenet I have described above. Equestria Girls, on the other hand, isn't as lucky. Whenever something appeared onscreen, the fans in the audience were vigilant enough to not only cheer, but also yell out a character's name or laugh every single time a reference popped up. It is because of these blatant nods that I remain unimpressed by them, but they also still managed to get in the way of the plot thanks to this unneeded audience reaction. By contrast, the crowd I had for Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time laughed at certain jokes and cheered when certain cards were played, but they at least had the courtesy to stay quiet when someone was talking.

How the script meetings must have gone.

That is to say nothing of the stinger at the very end of the credits. I had read that there was one and I had seen a hint of what it was, but when the credits rolled, I began to fear the audience reaction to this development. Every guy there seemed to know what it was, since they exclaimed at as soon as it began to appear, which tells me that they must have had the willpower to see the movie multiple times or the fandom really hates keeping secrets. In any case, I was pretty much ready to groan when it showed up, especially given how positively crazy the periphery got.

My reaction in a nutshell.

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls overall was just all right. It's plot is a little too convenient, the characters aren't developed very well and the themes of the show aren't presented in any clever way, simply serving to establish that, yes, Twilight Sparkle is still a Princess. It seems to be a reverse of what Lauren Faust had been trying to do with the series, down to introducing a romantic sub-plot that might be expanded upon in Season Four. Still, it's pretty harmless, but I feel that more effort could have gone into it to focus more on telling a good story instead of some kind of mess that really wasn't worth the hype. My disillusionment with the show has yet to come, but I feel like it's growing ever closer. Bronies will definitely love this movie, but parents who want their child to watch should probably try and let them watch it at home so that they don't experience the same alienation that the children in my screening no doubt did. It may be worthwhile to see once, but I know that thanks to my experience, I'll need to see it again.

By the way, I apologize for how Cracked-like this review may seem, but that's just how it came out. I'll be sure to rein myself in next time.

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