I mentioned last week that this was going to be the make-or-break season for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The transition season from Lauren Faust to Meghan McCarthy had passed, major story decisions that couldn’t be taken back had occurred and many of the writers from the first three seasons (like M.A. Larson and, from the looks of it, Cindy Morrow) have either left or taken the year off. It’s time to see if the show has still got it, if it could weather these particular storms and emerge from the other side at the same quality level as the first two seasons (which are the ones that the majority of fans seem to adore the most). Of course, these primarily being new writers in a new status quo, I was expecting some rockier episodes to kick off the new season, as everyone settles into the groove and learns how to write for the show.
Yet “Castle Mane-ia” feels like a script from somebody who’s been with the show since Day 1; not by first-time series writer Josh Haber (veteran of something called Kaijudo: Rise Of The Duel Monsters for three episodes and seemingly nothing else). This, in simple terms, was a freakin’ clinic in comedy, being utterly hysterical from start to finish as every single ‘creepy old castle’ trope is brought out and subsequently mocked to death with genuine affection for the genre itself. Hysterical lines flowed from the script, delivered absolutely perfectly by every single cast member and every scene was augmented by almost-series-best storyboarding by Emmett Hall and Tony Cliff.
Let’s tackle each aspect in order, then, seeing as there isn’t really much else going on in this episode besides non-stop hilarity (and the journal, but we’ll get to that). For a first-time writer, Josh Haber seems to get every single one of these characters and, consequently, knows how to exploit each of them for comedy in just the right ways without sacrificing their friendships with one another. Notice how after the incident with Fluttershy and the revolving door, Rarity starts doing the heavy lifting of tapestry herself and goes out of her way to keep Fluttershy calm… whilst still being obsessed in her quest for the various tapestries. A rougher episode from a less-talented writer would have made Rarity continue to inadvertently abuse Fluttershy for the rest of its duration, but not so here. Similarly, Fluttershy spends most of the episode panicking about most everything but instead of it being flanderization required for the comedy, it works because the context of the episode keeps making her worst fears come true, so her freak-outs feel natural instead of forced.
Also, for the first time I can recall in the show’s history (feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m wrong), we had a script that had A, B and C plotlines and every single one was juggled almost perfectly. Applejack and Rainbow Dash are a great pairing, as we already discovered back in Season 1’s “Fall Weather Friends”, so it was no surprise to see the pair of them get a bunch of great scenes as they tried out-freak each other in order to sufficiently hide their own fear, being the prideful ponies they are. Rarity and Fluttershy, however, was a pairing that, barring “Green Isn’t Your Color” to an extent, hasn’t really been properly explored before on the show. As mentioned earlier, though, the episode wasted no time in getting the most out of it, contrasting Rarity’s cooler head in regards to anything that doesn’t involve the destruction of fashion or art with Fluttershy’s nervous panicking over pretty much anything brilliantly. It’s a brilliant combination in the context of the episode and I hope we get more of this pairing in slightly more serious episodes in the future.
Twilight and Spike and Pinkie Pie ended up getting the relatively shorter end of the stick in terms of screen-time but both sets of characters still got plenty of great moments. Twilight and Spike had Twilight’s giant squee-session as she first entered the library, her carrying the other four main players from the episode on her back near the end and Spike’s over-embracing of various myths. Pinkie, meanwhile, was the inadvertent ringmaster behind the night’s terror-filled proceedings and STILL managed to sneak in several fantastic lines and actions too (the quick cut to Pinkie’s job of ringing the school bell being achieved by having her bang her head against it repeatedly is the kind of quick-gag I’m surprised the show doesn’t do more often). It’s an expertly handled ensemble and, with any luck, Josh Haber will be getting more of these types of scripts going forward.
Secondly, the voice work in this week’s episode was even better than usual. Every single line was delivered flawlessly, really elevating the quality of the already funny script. Ashleigh Ball, in particular, was absolutely on fire. Pretty much anything out of Applejack or Rainbow Dash’s mouths was some form of hilarious and I can credit it primarily down to her voice work. I’m re-reading the transcript of the episode for my Stray Observations part and I’m drawn particularly to the exchange where Applejack is introducing Rainbow Dash to the story of The Pony of Shadows, and what strikes me is how it doesn’t read that funny on paper. It’s Ashleigh’s perfect delivery of “Nopony knows!” that sells the gag totally and many other such moments crop up throughout the rest of the episode, where the joke is nowhere near as funny on paper, though it is still very funny on paper, as it is when the cast deliver it. They know how exactly to bring the funny.
The final component in making this episode one of the show’s all-time best is undoubtedly DHX Media’s board-work, which compliments and even enhances the script and voice performances even further. Going back to Twilight’s first discovery of the new library, the main cause of my laughter came from her facial expression instead of Tara Strong’s frenzied delivery. Pinkie’s bell-ringing antics are funny in and of themselves; the framing of the shot pushes it up to hysterical. Applejack’s kind of pathetic scary hooves, a nice call-back to Season 1’s “Look Before You Sleep” with Rarity. Almost all of the physical humour, primarily involving the flinging of ponies around the place at high speed. The short sight gag of the bowl of carrots popping up in front of Angel Bunny. DHX continually impress on a technical level, and they continued to do so this week when it came to lighting and shadows for the majority of the scenes, but I feel I don’t give them enough credit when it comes to sight gags and the like, seeing as they’re the ones primarily responsible for their construction. Well, here is me giving them credit. Well done, Emmett Hall and Tony Cliff! Excellent work!
Before I wrap, I feel like I should address the newest change to the status quo: the journal. Season 3 all but completely removed the Letters to Celestia dynamic, preferring to work the Aesop of the Week into the episode itself, barring a few exceptions. Though it did involve the characters essentially having to state the Aesop to each other, it felt more natural and I liked the change. I do fear that the introduction of the journal will cause a step-back as a result, involving a slightly clunky crowbarring in of the Aesop at the end, but I’m willing to reserve judgement until I’ve seen it in action. Besides, I have a feeling that my worries at this moment are soles rooted in my fears that these sections will begin with the characters saying “Dear Diary…” in much the same way that “everypony” and referring to fillies as “my little ponies” caused me to want to crawl out of my skin on initial viewing. Time will tell!
“Castle Mane-ia” was a comedy episode that fired on all cylinders. Was there a relative lack of the typical heart that usually accompanies the best episodes of Friendship is Magic? Aside from that scene at the end of the episode involving all of the Mane Six together just being buddies (something that one could argue was sorely lacking from Season 3), yeah, I’d say so. Not that I mind, though, because I was having way too much fun to let that bother me! This is one of the best episodes in the show’s entire run and it both bodes well for future slice-of-life episodes and sets a really high bar for the rest of the debuting writers to reach going ahead. Not bad for a first-timer.
As evidenced by the time that this review went up, I did not watch the leaked version of this episode earlier in the week. Partially because I was busy with other stuff, but mainly because I kinda like the feeling of watching an episode along with 100,000s, possibly even millions, of other people at the same time. Living in the UK, and with most of the shows I enjoy being American imports, it’s a feeling I don’t get that often, so it’s nice when I do.
- That was some pitch-perfect black comedy when Fluttershy thought she saw Angel being crushed to death, even though it clearly looked nothing like him. Hopefully this kind of humour is used very sparingly, though. We have enough shows on TV that do that kind of thing, nowadays. It’s good for an occasional pop up, however, especially when it’s as good as it was here.
- This week’s fan song is Omnipony’s “Poni Robots”, a great two-part dance track that people more versed in the strange terminology of music categorisation have termed ‘glitch-step’, whatever the frak that means.
- This week’s fan video, meanwhile, is The Adventures Of Donut Steel, a spot-on parody of every bad fan-fiction OC (Original Character) trope in existence and well worth a watch even if you don’t like My Little Pony but have come across your fair share of abysmal fan-fiction.
- Next week, Rainbow Dash meets the author of the Daring Do series. If this does not lead to 200+ subtle jabs at the Brony fandom and their tendency to take things way too seriously, then I will consider this premise WASTED!
- The Internet strangely took an extreme fascination to Twilight’s sceptre in last week’s premiere. As a slightly more detached fan than most, I found this rather amusing. Plus, we got this comic from it.
- “I’m gonna need my bees back.”
- “You can’t be tied for Most Daring Pony!” “I dunno. The numbers don’t lie!” Pinkie’s mathematics are… questionable, to say the least.
- “Plus, I don’t believe in ghosts.” “You might wanna rethink your position on that!”
- “I’m starting to wonder if maybe this castle doesn’t want my expertise!”
- “No one likes sarcasm, Spike.”
- “Hey, you guys! Did you know that I could play the organ? Cos I didn’t!”
- Pinkie’s motor-mouthed exposition speech here may have bested her two from Equestria Girls. Jury’s still out as I type this.
Callie Petch is looking for a man who could give him true love.