Monday, November 16, 2020

Second Look - My Little Pony: Equestria Girls

Note: This review contains spoilers for My Little Pony: Equestria Girls.

Over the course of its nine-year lifespan, the inexplicably popular My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon had a short-lived spin-off series of films, collectively known as My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, which was made to into a toyline designed to compete with Mattel’s popular Monster High series and its ilk. When I first saw the original Equestria Girls film in 2013, I came away with a largely negative opinion of it, which I admit was partly influenced by having initially seen it in a theater alongside an audience with some particularly obnoxious members of the “brony” community, which, for those who aren’t aware, consists of the Friendship is Magic cartoon’s periphery demographic of adult males. Though I eventually stopped caring about the Friendship is Magic cartoon after 100 episodes, only tuning in later to watch the series finale, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with how my original review of the first Equestria Girls movie turned out, and so decided to revisit it in a context entirely divorced from my original experiences. Though not quite as bad as I remembered it, there were still some issues I had with the final product.

Following the events of “Magical Mystery Cure”, Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) is preparing for her coronation as a Princess, however she doesn’t feel she’s emotionally prepared for it yet. That night, a mysterious pony steals the crown containing Twilight’s Element of Harmony, jumping into a magic mirror to escape. It is then revealed that the pony that stole the crown was Princess Celestia’s former student Sunset Shimmer and the mirror is a portal to another world that only opens every 30 moons. Seeing no other option, Twilight Sparkle voluntarily enters the mirror to recover the crown, with Spike (Cathy Weseluck) jumping in after her, finding themselves in an alternate reality where Twilight is turned into a human girl and Spike a dog.

Spike (Cathy Weseluck) and Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) after being
transported to the human world.

The story is, to put it simply, pretty basic, as it seems to set itself up as an excuse to tell a more or less cliché high school movie, including a dance, a romantic subplot and the (rather heavy) theme of cyber-bullying. In trying to work all these elements in while also tying into Twilight trying to get the crown back, this results in some uneven pacing, such as the romance subplot between Twilight and new character Flash Sentry (Vincent Tong) not really going anywhere (not to mention coming out of nowhere) and the final battle between Twilight and Sunset only occurring within the last 13 minutes of the movie. Though the movie tries to set up Sunset as a potential foil for Twilight, said potential is somewhat wasted as Sunset is written to fit within the aforementioned “high school movie” clichés. The introduction of the human versions of the other five main characters (Applejack, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash) is admittedly interesting in that they are presented as friends who had a bit of a falling out, however their introductions rely a bit on recreating moments from the Friendship is Magic opening two-parter, which a casual viewer would not be able to recognize without that context.

The subplot involving Flash Sentry (Vincent Tong) (right) goes nowhere.

Tying into this, there are several moments of fanservice throughout the movie made to cater to the aforementioned “brony” crowd, including a number of background characters in crowd shots modeled after inexplicably popular background characters from Friendship is Magic, as well as a rather pointless cameo from recurring character Trixie (Kathleen Barr). This is also the only thing that explains a random appearance from a divisive background character, whom Hasbro has officially referred to as My Little Pony 2012 Special Edition Pony, during the end credits. As with the previously-mentioned recreations of scenes from the show, these don’t make much sense without the original context, making the movie more of a product of its time than anything else. I will admit that it can be clever how certain things from the base series were reworked into a high school context, such as the school's name as Canterlot High and their mascot the Wondercolts (referencing the Wonderbolts team from the show).

Trixie (Kathleen Barr) makes a minor cameo that contributes nothing to the story.

One moment that stood out to me, for all the wrong reasons, was when Twilight inevitably has to tell the human counterparts of her friends that she’s from another dimension in order to explain everything that’s going on. Just as she’s about to, Pinkie Pie somehow manages to guess exactly what the situation is just by “a hunch”, after which the characters still go through the motions of how one would react to such a revelation. Though this might be sort of fitting for Pinkie Pie’s character and is meant to be a joke, the execution of the joke robs the moment of whatever emotional weight it might have had. A similar joke is made towards the end of the movie in which the pony version of Pinkie Pie is somehow able to guess the events of the human world on “a hunch”, which suggests that Pinkie Pie is somehow omniscient, as well as the idea that these were used as a lazier form of exposition to fit within the movie’s runtime.

The animation is pretty good and manages to hold up pretty decently. That said, despite having a theoretically higher budget than an episode of Friendship is Magic, much of that budget seems to have been reserved for the final battle, with the rest of the animation otherwise very similar to the base show. I will say thought that the animation of the human characters is very fluid for its animation style, which I would attribute to studio DHX Media's previous experience with shows featuring a human cast. Though I am aware the movie is trying to sell toys, the human character designs somehow manage to look more palatable than the actual toys themselves, appearing as though the toy designs were filtered through the Friendship is Magic art style.

The voice acting is one of the few highlights of the movie, in that returning voice actors whose characters have alternate counterparts manage to play them somewhat distinctly from their original counterparts in terms of personality and backstory. Tara Strong and Cathy Weseluck also deliver strong performances respectively as Twilight Sparke and Spike as they grow accustomed to the workings of the human world. As for characters introduced in this movie, Rebecca Shoichet delivers a solid performance as Sunset Shimmer, as does Vincent Tong as Flash Sentry, however the former character is played such that Soichet was doing her best with the material she was given, while the latter character doesn’t get much screen time and seems to only exist to push product.

This about sums up Sunset Shimmer's character.
From left: Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet),
Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman)

As this movie is a musical, much like the base series, there are five songs present throughout the movie. As this was my third viewing of the movie across seven years, I realized just how much these songs didn’t stick with me in all that time, leading me to conclude that, while they aren’t terrible songs, they aren’t very memorable. “Equestria Girls (Cafeteria Song)”, which appropriately enough gets a big moment during a cafeteria scene, is perhaps the best of these songs, however the presentation of the song was still not enough to get it to stick with me once the movie ended.

Though minor, one thing that stuck out to me was a use of the Transformers transformation noise, in the context of Pinkie Pie uncurling from a ball-like position. As a fan of Transformers, I wasn’t sure what to make of this bit; though clearly meant as a joke since both Transformers and My Little Pony are Hasbro properties, at the same time I couldn’t help but feel that said joke seemed a bit random even by Pinkie Pie’s standards.

On the subject of Transformers, there is an interesting bit of overlap with this movie, in that the name Flash Sentry was since recycled for a BotCon 2016 toy of the same name, designated in-universe as a Photon, or clone of Reflector (the camera Decepticon comprised of Spectro, Spyglass and Viewfinder). Additionally, though official crossover art does exist between Transformers and My Little Pony, via convention-exclusive covers for comics set in the IDW Friendship is Magic canon and the 2005 IDW Transformers canon as well as a convention-exclusive lithograph, an official full-on four-issue comic book crossover mini-series was recently released, originally slated for a weekly release in May and pushed back to being monthly in August due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dubbed My Little Pony/Transformers, the comic crosses the Friendship is Magic continuity with characters from the 1984 Transformers canon, including from the 2019 IDW Transformers continuity.

A blessing or a curse depending on how you look at it.
(Virgin Issue #1 Cover RI-B by Bethany McGuire)

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls holds up in some aspects, such as the animation and voice acting, however those aspects weren’t enough to make the whole movie stand the test of time. The story doesn’t do too much to make it stand out from other “high school” or “fish out of water” movies, aside from the presence of popular My Little Pony characters, and the pacing is a bit spotty in places. It also doesn’t stand up well enough as a stand-alone movie, instead relying a bit too hard on the viewer already being familiar with Friendship is Magic to begin with despite trying to push an unrelated toyline. Overall, this movie has the most appeal to those who are already fans of My Little Pony, most especially the Friendship is Magic series, otherwise I would honestly tell you to just pass on this one.

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