Friday, November 20, 2020

My Little Pony: The Movie (2017)

During our effort to (re-)review the Equestria Girls tetralogy, we decided to round out our My Little Pony experience with My Little Pony: The Movie, released theatrically in late 2017. Due to our feelings on the franchise at the time, we didn’t see it during its original run. However, we were surprised to find that we could stream it for free through Amazon Prime and jumped on the opportunity. I’m actually glad at this point that I didn’t spend any money at the theater, since the incredible traditional animation does nothing to make up for the painfully average story.

Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) oversees Equestria’s first Friendship Festival and feels a lot of pressure. During the setup, the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a unicorn with a broken horn who works for the Storm King. The Storm King’s army invades soon after and Tempest petrifies the other three princesses; Princess Celestia (Nicole Oliver) instructs her sister, Princess Luna (Tabitha St. Germain), to find “the queen of the hippo” beyond Equestria, but doesn’t finish the sentence before they’re petrified. Twilight and her friends – Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman), Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball), Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) and Fluttershy (Andrea Libman) – along with her dragon assistant, Spike (Cathy Weseluck), escape from Tempest’s forces and begin the search for the “hippos”. Meanwhile, the Storm King (Liev Schreiber) sends Tempest to search for Twilight, since he needs the magic of all four princesses to empower the Staff of Sacanas.

The Storm King's airship just before disaster.

The way the rest of this story plays out is rather disappointing not so much in concept, but in the execution. Maybe it’s my familiarity with this type of story, but in spite of its own twists, the plot played out predictably. As soon as certain elements came into play, I knew how they would play out. What didn’t help is that based on my own familiarity with the first 100 and last three episodes of Friendship is Magic, I noticed certain story beats lifted directly from the main series, including the villain easily doing away with the other princesses. It seems that the creative team likes doing things a certain way and those ideas can’t escape their gravity.

I also noticed how quickly the movie went through each of its plot points and realized that the songs had something to do with that. Among the many musical numbers, a couple are used as shortcuts to advance the story and character development to where they need to be for the next scene to work. For instance, Twilight and co. end up on a ship with some of the Storm King’s crew and are almost tossed overboard, but one musical number, "Time to Be Awesome", later, everyone is the best of friends. I’m aware that other films use songs in this way, but the amount of times this occurred here seemed notable.

One musical number is all it takes for Captain Celeano (Zoe Saldana; Middle)
and her crew to change their ways.

I’ll admit also that the characterizations in this film are a bit iffy. I didn’t pay close attention to Friendship is Magic after Episode 100, so I have no idea how accurate Twilight and friends were to the show at the time. Divorced of that context, however, Twilight’s friends didn’t seem to take their situation seriously and were depicted as doing the right thing regardless. Twilight, in contrast, took their journey very seriously, though I wasn’t sure how to feel about the lengths she seemed willing to go to complete her mission. Either way, I still found it genuinely shocking when she snapped at her friends about halfway through the story.

As for the new characters, Capper (Taye Diggs) is a conman who ends up seeing the error of his ways, but I feel like he didn’t have enough screen time to really flesh him out. The Storm King also felt like a very flat character, as he’s very conscious about his personal brand and, based on how he behaves during the climax, seems too incompetent to be a real threat in spite of his introduction. On a more minor note, Songbird Serenade (Sia) doesn’t do much of anything, despite appearing on the film’s poster. By far the most interesting new character, however, was Tempest Shadow. She feels the most fleshed out, as she’s given the most scenes, and has an emotional backstory that makes her more sympathetic in the third act.

Despite the spotty story and characterizations, I’ll freely admit that the animation is absolutely stellar. Fittingly for a theatrically-released film, the art style feels familiar, but is given an extra layer of polish for the big screen and the animation quality is a vast improvement over both Friendship is Magic and Equestria Girls. It feels familiar, but the expressions and movements now have a lot more subtlety that I appreciate and the backgrounds have a lot more detail. The character designs are also very attractive to the eye, not just for the returning characters, but the newcomers as well. Two of the more interesting designs on that front are Capper and Tempest Shadow, whose designs also seem to tell a story of their own.

Capper (Taye Diggs) has an interesting design.

As for the songs, they’re generally good and match their scenes, but many of them didn’t stick with me once the end credits rolled. This includes “Rainbow”, performed by Sia, which sounded appropriately upbeat, but also standard fare for this type of film. The one that really left an impact, however, was “Open Up Your Eyes”, performed by Emily Blunt. It revealed more about Tempest Shadow as a character, the lyrics were emotional and Emily Blunt’s performance was very powerful. Beyond that, I didn’t have complaints about the voice acting, since everyone did a good job with what they were given.

"Open Up Your Eyes" is easily the best song in the movie;
Pictured: Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt)

For Friendship is Magic’s theatrical effort, with a much higher budget than a TV show would normally allow, I feel as though My Little Pony: The Movie (2017) didn’t take full advantage of what it had. Some of the better ideas, including Tempest Shadow’s entire character, are held back by average storytelling and dodgy characterization. It’s maybe worth watching for the traditionally animated flavor, sadly a rarity nowadays for American filmmaking, but otherwise only enjoyable for the dedicated fans.

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