Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Second Look - My Little Pony: Equestria Girls - Rainbow Rocks

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

Back in 2014, I had reviewed My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks based on a limited theatrical screening. With the passage of time, however, I’ve come to dislike my original review. I didn’t take the review seriously enough and I realized that I was overly harsh due to a negative experience with particularly overzealous “Bronies” (Friendship is Magic’s adult male fans) at a theatrical screening. After about five years, I decided to take another look at this film, alongside the original Equestria Girls, to see if I felt any differently and look at any of its flaws more objectively. I turns out that I warmed up to it a bit more, but I still felt that at least one change could have improved it dramatically.

A trio of girls known as the Dazzlings – Adagio Dazzle (Kazumi Evans), Sonata Dusk (Maryke Hendrikse) and Aria Blaze (Diana Kaarina) – are a group of sirens who were banished from Equestria to the human world. Times are rough for them until they discover that Equestrian magic exists in the human world, which they see as opportunity to regain their original forms and wreak havoc once more. Later, following the events of Equestria Girls, Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) is trying to redeem herself at school, but no one except Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball), Fluttershy (Andrea Libman), Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman) and Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) will accept her. Sunset’s efforts include showing three new girls, the Dazzlings, around school. This goes south, however, and the Dazzlings turn Canterlot High’s musical showcase into a full-on battle of the bands. Once Sunset sees their magical abilities, she uses a book to call on the aid of Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), who shows up to help. With their band, the Rainbooms, complete, the girls have to overcome the issues between them in order to defeat the Dazzlings and save two worlds.

The Dazzlings turn the musical showcase into a battle of the bands;
L-R: Aria Blaze (Diana Kaarina), Adagio Dazzle (Kazumi Evans),
Sonata Dusk (Maryke Hendrikse)

In comparison to Equestria Girls, Rainbow Rocks has more going for it. Sunset Shimmer has more depth and goes through a redemption arc, the Dazzlings’ abilities and goal create higher stakes and while not completely original, the overarching “battle of the bands” structure offers more than generic high school drama. The idea of the Rainbooms bickering with each other is recycled a bit from Equestria Girls, but is played with more subtlety as they allow small problems to snowball into bigger ones without realizing it until it’s nearly too late. On top of that, the film ends with more of a bang as the final fight between the Rainbooms and the Dazzlings feels bigger and more climactic compared to the fight against Sunset Shimmer in the previous film.

Of course, fixing issues from the previous film doesn’t prevent Rainbow Rocks from having a few of its own. For one thing, the romantic subplot with Flash Sentry (Vincent Tong) returns here, but still ultimately feels pointless. It felt more like he and Twilight Sparkle were kind of a thing because they were written that way in the previous movie and this one was trapped into continuing it. There are also moments of what feel like forced fanservice, as was the style at the time, which only have any impact if you were invested in background characters from the parent series Friendship is Magic. Then there’s the pacing, which starts out smoothly but then drags during the last third of the movie. I attribute this to the sheer number of songs featured in the film, 11, as well as a couple issues that tie into one bigger problem regarding Twilight Sparkle’s place in the story.

It starts with the fact that Sunset Shimmer possesses a book, which she had no previous indication of having, with the power to contact Celestia between worlds like an interdimensional cell phone (the book on the receiving end even vibrates). I understand that the writer just hadn’t thought of it before and tried to organically work it into the story, but the book ultimately feels like a contrived device to shoehorn Twilight Sparkle into the conflict. It was then later in the film that I realized Twilight’s role and character arc only really work in the context of when Rainbow Rocks originally released. It was just after Season Four of Friendship is Magic had aired, which made Twilight an official princess and gave her more responsibilities to deal with. This is touched upon in the film itself, by showing Twilight moving into her new castle and giving her a character moment with Sunset Shimmer, but I feel like there isn’t as much weight to it without prior investment in her story.

The presence of the book feels contrived.

With this in mind, I believe that either removing or downplaying Twilight’s involvement in the story would result in a stronger film. Without Twilight, Sunset Shimmer would have more to do and not feel like she’s shoved into the background until it’s convenient. Sunset would then play a more active role in the story and have more character development to let her stand on her own rather than in Twilight’s shadow. Could Twilight still have played a role in the events? Yes, but if the contact had been restricted to the book, then Twilight could provide information and guidance from afar while still allowing Sunset room to figure out how to beat the Dazzlings on her own. Otherwise, the way the film stands now, it felt like Twilight went through issues that Sunset was originally meant to deal with.

The animation is an improvement over Equestria Girls, with smoother movement and better lighting and visual effects, though it seems held back by retaining the feeling of Adobe Flash from its parent series. As with the nature of the story, characters often change outfits, which sometimes gave off a more blatant toy commercial vibe than the previous film. Rainbow Rocks also commits what I consider more or less a cardinal sin of music-based animation where a character is shown playing an instrument, in this case Rarity with a keytar, but the instrument isn’t heard anywhere in the song. On the upside, I did like the drawings shown during the end credits, as they presented a well-developed style of their own that I’d want to see more of.

The artwork during the end credits has an attractive style.

Rather fittingly, Rainbow Rocks features 11 songs, more than double its predecessor. These songs are also better written and produced than those in Equestria Girls, but they didn’t really leave a lasting impact with me outside maybe the chorus of "Battle" and “Shake Your Tail”. The songs worked while I was watching the film, but I had forgotten them instantly once the (surprisingly short) end credits rolled. The voice acting, on the other hand, was a highlight of the film, with everyone putting in solid performances.

I also want to mention that Rainbow Rocks had a series of two-minute prequel shorts leading up to the film’s release, all of which are on the home video release. As part of the experience, I rewatched all eight of them through the Blu-ray and felt a little mixed about them. They mainly serve as a way to explain how the Rainbooms end up playing the instruments they do, though there’s still plenty of fanservice for the more hardcore Friendship is Magic fans. Honestly, you could kind of take them or leave them if you decide to give this film a shot.

Rainbow Rocks is an improvement over Equestria Girls in just about every way, but still holds itself back from greatness by shackling itself to the idea that Twilight Sparkle has to be involved. If Sunset Shimmer had more of a direct role in the story and had the room to stand on her own, the film would be truly great, or at least a lot better than it already is. The actual songs, the main focus of the story, are forgettable, but they at least work during the film. This film only really works if you’ve seen Equestria Girls already, but it should still please the core demographic regardless.

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