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Movie review: "My Little Pony: The Movie"

The appeal of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comes from a combination of factors. Aside from its lighthearted tone and cute art style, its characters are surprisingly three-dimensional, and its best episodes can be quite funny as well. This show's cult following didn't come out of nowhere, and much of it comes down to the show's main themes. To me, the most important part of Friendship is Magic's appeal is that so many of its stories revolve around the main characters needing to move past their own insecurities. This show does an excellent job with audience identification, even outside of the target audience, simply because it fleshes out its protagonists and treats them with empathy.

On the other hand, My Little Pony: The Movie is asinine and derivative, and while there's several factors in its overall sloppiness, perhaps the greatest is that it trades the show's stories of insecurity for slapdash adventure cliches, seemingly assembled at random. What little remains of the show's soul is scrambled by the slapdash execution, which is too busy hopping from formula beat to formula beat to sufficiently develop even one of its characters, and it's all brought down by a truly wretched sense of humour. Perhaps it would be difficult to make a My Little Pony movie which really taps into the show's main strengths, but on the other hand, there's no reason it had to be this bad.

(note: spoilers follow)

When Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt) attacks the Equestrian capital city of Canterlot on behalf of the evil Storm King (Liev Schreiber), Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) and her friends Applejack, Rainbow Dash (both voiced by Ashleigh Ball), Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy (both voiced by Andrea Libman), and Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) set out to stop them and save Equestria.

That summary has more names than plot, and that's largely because there's barely any plot to speak of. In essence, the film consists of a handful of episodes defined primarily by the ponies' quest to find the hippogriffs, whom their monarch Princess Celestia mentioned before being captured by the Storm King. In the process, they hop from random setting to random setting, meeting a new handful of underdeveloped characters along the way. My Little Pony distinguishes itself from other animated features through a focus on talking rather than violence to resolve conflict, but because the characters are so underdeveloped, the story beats still come across as overly familiar. Any time we might have learned a little about the actual people in this story, the antagonists arrive to shove Twilight & co. off to the next predictable beat.

Worse still, many plot points are dubious at best. On multiple occasions, the plot only moves forward because one of the ponies idiotically calls attention to herself, despite knowing very well that they need to keep a low profile. One plot point which is particularly dubious, although for different reasons, is near the end of the second act, when the film attempts to complicate its plot somewhat by showing a break in the main group's friendships. Unfortunately, this only occurs because Twilight acts blatantly out of character. This is irritating for fans, and since the film spends no time on actually developing these characters, newcomers won't have any reason to care about this contrived conflict.

Frankly, characterization isn't exactly the film's strong point in general. Applejack is given almost nothing to do, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash are reduced to caricatures, Pinkie Pie is significantly weighed down by the film's awful jokes, Spike is so minor that I forgot he was in this, and Twilight isn't allowed much of a personality at all. The one time when Twilight actually livens up is in the aforementioned second-act fallout, which is initiated by her attempting to rob one of the film's numerous new characters for seemingly no reason at all. Aside from just how far this is from her personality in the show, it's also something which I highly doubt neophytes will find endearing, which will make it even harder for them to be invested in the plot.

The new characters, meanwhile, are far too underdeveloped to leave much of an impression. Capper (Taye Diggs) is your generic dashing rogue, and while the pirate captain Celaeno (Zoe Saldana) strikes an impressive posture, she too never becomes more than an archetype. Worst of all are the hippogriffs, most notably Princess Skystar (Kristin Chenoweth), whose constant chatter is immediately obnoxious and makes for perhaps the least tolerable stretch of the whole film. Like Capper and Celaeno, these characters are ultimately relegated to an extremely familiar archetype, but Skystar the probably the most memorable characters in the movie, if for all the wrong reasons. The ponies only ever cause trouble for these characters, and yet of course they return to help in the final act, because that's what happens in every movie like this.

The new villains are more of a mixed bag: the Storm King is your run-of-the-mill snarky villain, and his already rote personality is made unbearable by the terrible script. Meanwhile, Tempest Shadow is little more than generically menacing, but the final act suddenly reveals a traumatic backstory which, for just a brief moment, revives the empathetic themes which define the show. Unfortunately, she's not made even slightly sympathetic after that moment, and everything she does after that strictly follows template. Plus, the quiet menace of Blunt's performance sometimes just comes across as boredom, which further diminishes the character's appeal.

Despite my allusions to the script's terrible jokes, there actually aren't that many to speak of. Most of the film's humour is derived from the characters' personalities, but because they're all so simplistic, much of this humour falls flat, and Pinkie Pie in particular comes across as noisy and shrill. When actual attempts at gags are made, they're invariably weak, and several take the form of dated references or even cheap anachronisms. The first time we see a magical device ring like a cell phone, it's a novelty for this series, but when it's repeated later in the film, it just comes across as trite and lazy.

What entertainment the film does provide comes from its songs and surprising dark edges. Most of the musical numbers are derivative, but they're at least lively and varied, and one or two are even catchy. More than one song feels like it only exists to fill time, but one which takes place on a pirate ship in particular is another of the film's rare flashes of empathy, and is perhaps the best example of the film solving conflict with dialogue rather than violence. Too bad the villains arrive right after to up the tension. On brief occasions, the scale of the setpieces transcends the tedious plot, but these moments are few and far between.

A little more exciting is that this film is actually one of the darker stories in the franchise. In an early scene, all of the four princesses except Twilight are literally turned to stone, and several later scenes involve unscrupulous figures attempting to literally enslave the protagonists. There's even a scene where the main group appears to have drowned. These moments of intensity are more unique for the series than for kids' films in general, but they're the one thing which gives the movie any personality or life. There's also a scene or two which are quieter than the usual family feature, but most of the film is exhaustingly busy and loud.

Finally, it must be noted that My Little Pony: The Movie heavily revises the series' aesthetic, and not always for the best. The character animations are significantly more detailed, but while this often comes with fluid movement, it can often seem overblown, like when a pose is held for a few seconds too long in a music number, or when lip flaps feature more frames than actually fits the dialogue. Every single new character design is colourful yet profoundly generic, matching their personalities. Much more troubling are the backgrounds, which contain a lot of detail but bury it in dark colours, and in contrast to the bright and cheery show, several of the environments here are painted in varying shades of red, grey, and brown.

The line work is still consistently interesting, but the characters almost never feel like they're actually in the set, largely because the environments are either static or filled with conspicuous low-quality 3D models. Many objects are also shaded to have a distracting, almost plasticky depth-of-field effect, to the extent that it's difficult to tell where the 2D art ends and the 3D models begin. On a more subjective note, the level of detail at times feels like a betrayal of the show's appealing simplicity, but it's not hard to see the appeal of adding dimension and complexity to the show's art. If only it was better executed.

Some of those backgrounds are genuinely pretty, and the songs at least have some life to them, but even those elements can't keep My Little Pony: The Movie from feeling double its length. The poor comedy and the poor characterization are merely the most significant of several issues keeping it down, and even the occasional glimmer of life can't save a movie without a context to support it. In fact, considering that the songs can be found outside of the film and presumably pack just as much impact, there's really no reason to watch My Little Pony: The Movie at all unless you're the most devoted fan of the series. It's hard to translate a the character development of a long-running show to the big screen, but there's absolutely no reason this couldn't have been fun on its own merits, especially given that some of the show's best writers are involved.

I'm not surprised - all the warning signs were in the trailers - but just don't know how this went so wrong.

3/10

+ Decent songs.
+ Occasionally gets surprisingly dark.
+ Detailed animation...
- ...which is brought down by cheap backgrounds.
- Extremely formulaic.
- Wildly underdeveloped characters.
- Very poor sense of humour.
 

As a bonus: on my usual pony rating scale!

Score:

Entertainment: 3/10
Characters: 3/10
Themes: 6/10
Story: 2/10
Overall: 35/100

I would generally round this to 4/10, but this is one of those cases where the averaged rating doesn't really reflect my personal rating. 

Anyway, you can find my backlog of pony reviews at my offsite pony blog, and you can find many more movie reviews at my primary blog.

(Also, I'd like to promote my Patreon, but I don't think I'm allowed to do that on this site. Link is on the main blog. If it displeases the mods, I'll remove this line.)



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