My Little Pony: The Movie (2017) Review

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My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
 was special to me. Still is. For six years it’s been one of my post shameful admissions and yet I see no real reason to be ashamed. I like things gosh darn it. I like sincere things that fill me with joy, I like things that are funny and exciting and genuine and touching, I like things that inspire a little goodness in me. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic gave that to me at a time when I needed it most, and no matter where it goes it’ll always be special to me for that.

Sadly My Little Pony: The Movie is a little late to the party (insert hackneyed Pinkie Pie joke here). The once booming curiosity of its adult fandom has dwindled in numbers comapred to the default market of incredibly young and impressionable girls, with the presence of young boys and adults and equally enthused parents at my local premiere only being a footnote. And yet My Little Pony: The Movie still manages to ooze with happiness and love. It takes Lauren Faust’s original adventure-driven concept and elevates it to a scale that I only ever dreamed was possible, leaving me more enthused about My Little Pony than I’ve been in a long time.

This is gonna have spoilers because honestly that’s the only way I think I can meaningfully talk about the movie, so yeah there’s your warning. If you haven’t seen the movie and care about spoilers turn away now.

The most obvious point of difference to the series is the art and animation style, and for all the right reasons. Friendship is Magic has managed to take flash animation to some pretty impressive places, but an animation style built around cold efficiency can only go so far. By contrast My Little Pony: The Movie is absolutely glowing, with vivid colours and subtle fluid character movement and a stunning diversity of visual tones and environments and dramatic setpieces. It’s more fun than ever to see Pinkie Pie launch rapid fire projectile cupcakes at evil henchmen, and ostensibly unappealing new character designs like Tempest Shadow and Capper still manage to have a unique presence of movement that makes them engaging. It’s honestly touching just to see such a large scale 2D animated film in this day and age, but to see it breathe new life into a series I’ve invested so much into fills me with glee.

Besides visual scale My Little Pony: The Movie also manages to have narrative scale. From the glamorous Canterlot to the dusty alleys of Klugetown to the little swashbuckling adventures aboard the airship to the underwater utopia of Seaquestria My Little Pony: The Movie truly goes places. It also occassionally takes itself to darker moments than the series has ever seen (heck, Tempest’s erratic broken horn alone is scary), but it does so gracefully. I’m impressed whenever I see a kid-oriented thing willing to respect the intelligence of children when it comes to slightly more challenging content, but you can’t just be dark for the sake of being dark and call it meaningful.

My Little Pony: The Movie isn’t ashamed to show its bubbly girly roots from scene to scene either, recognising that traditionally bright and feminine-coded narratives like the mini-arc between the main characters and the seaponies are just as valid as the darker narratives that older male fans tend to cite as their favourite part of the show. And besides that it ultimately builds its darker shades into an overarching story that remains happy and uplifting, taking viewers of all ages and identities on a journey that carries tonal momentum and earns its cheerful ending.

Where My Little Pony: The Movie kinda falls flat is in its character arcs. The most telling of these is the obligatory falling out arc. Each of their setbacks is built on characters just being randomly silly in archetypal ways. Rainbow Dash reveals their location by doing a sonic rainboom because sonic rainbooms are awesome I guess, Pinkie Pie reveals their location again when she scribbles it over a map she leaves in the airship because Pinkie is silly and stuff, Twilight gets caught trying to steal the seaponies’ pearl because… well… I didn’t quite catch that one. Panicked and did it out of urgency? Beats me. Point is character moments aren’t really built up, they just kinda happen cause the movie feels they need to happen and probably considers the concept of having them fall out with each other to be a pretty big deal on its own (even if it’s already happened several times). And then the forgiveness comes before they’ve really had any beats to reconcile differences because their friendship is too powerful or something.

Moreover when the falling out scene actually occurs Twilight ends up arguing with Pinkie, which comes off as fairly pointless. You could have honestly put any of the other four ponies in there with only a few subtle tweaks. In general My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has always had trouble accounting for all its main characters when they’re all together in a single narrative, and with a few exceptions mostly everyone but Twilight is just there to fill a generic role. This is unfortunately still the case here, and while just seeing the characters be themselves in visually stunning feature length form is a treat it’s a shame to see nuanced characters wasted as placeholders. In fact it might be even more the case here because the movie clusters them in with a bunch of new characters. The new characters, despite being fun and likeable, also mostly suffer from not having solid arcs besides broad strokes “magic of friendship” stuff.

The one satisfying character arc is Tempest Shadow’s. It’s a fairly standard “aww she’s just never known true friendship” story (tell me if you’ve heard that one before), but the little details of her past make it touching. As the villain who takes up the most screen time she already has a rough haunting presence, but hearing her story of rejection makes her personality (or dare I say PONYALITY) able to be empathised with. The story of her horn being busted and the other ponies coming to fear her when she was young is told with poignant storybook visuals, not ending up profoudly nuanced or original but embedding her with the believable motive of wanting the power to get her horn back and eventually bringing the catharsis of Twilight and the gang praising the unique power of her horn and embracing her for who she is. A little bit of grounding goes a long way in getting people to invest in even fairly simple characters.

Storm King is the true de-facto villain, a vaguely power hungry and quirky and self-centered antagonist who’s neither as compelling a villain as his right hand pony Tempest nor as fun as other laid-back villains like Discord. But he still fills his role decently and guest star Liev Schriber puts on a fun performance. In general the guest voice actors do a pretty good job, with special mention to Kristin Chenoweth’s innocently giddy and earnest Princess Skystar. Sia is perhaps the biggest name present, playing Songbird Serenade but mostly just being there to be Sia occasionally and to do the nice little song at the end.

Speaking of which there’s plenty of fantastic songs as expected. As much as I like almost all the songs that have come out of the TV series there’s been a less likable share of tunes in the last several seasons, with even the ambitious numbers falling into a pattern of complete lack of purpose and momentum, little to no visual storytelling, samey instrumentation and achingly awkward lyrics (and yes not all the songs have all these issues but a lot of them do and you end up with lines like “so I’ll be the one who doesn’t have to say goodbye”… ugh…). My Little Pony: The Movie doesn’t always justify the existence of its song numbers but there’s hardly room to complain when each and every one of them is full of life. There’s bubbly ensembles, there’s diverse character songs and of course what would it be without a soaring epic or two. I’m a fan of the bubbly ensembles myself, and ‘We Got This Together’ and ‘One Small Thing’ are two of the best sources of pure primal delight that the series has ever produced.

And what would a Friendship is Magic project be without some nods to dedicated watchers of the show? There’s Lyra and Bon Bon, there’s Starlight and Trixie, there’s DJ Pon-3 and lo and behold there’s Derpy. They all take up fairly innocuous background positions, having their nice little cameos and disappearing into the ether before they intrude in the narrative. I would’ve personally liked more Starlight and Trixie but they were obviously set on making their feature length debut a journey for the mane six, and it was perfectly fine as that.

I was 14 when I first discovered My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and it brought me happiness and belonging when I felt hopeless and vulnerable. Now I’m going on 21 and, well, life has gone on. I fell in love with the fandom, dramatically left it, went through a renaissance of enthusiasm for the series, casually lost interest again and settled on a quiet subtle appreciation. But for at least a few moments in that cinema I felt what I felt when this little show teenage me wasn’t supposed to like changed my life.

My Little Pony: The Movie is a labour of love, imbued with the pure adventurous spirit that made Friendship is Magic so special in the first place. It’s got its quirks but it did the one thing I wanted it to do: it made me smile. It made me smile a lot. There are no words that can do justice to the pure sincere happiness I felt, no ratings that can even begin to sum up my elation. It’s poignant to think that there’s more years behind Friendship is Magic than there likely will be ahead of it, but it’s sure been a great ride. Here’s hoping to at least a few more smiles.

8/10

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