It lacks the surprise “this actually works!” factor of the original, but My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks is otherwise a better film in every respect.
I really like the first Equestria Girls. I liked it enough to actually put it on my Top 10 Films of 2013 list in the #10 slot with 47 Ronin (which is always reserved for the nicest surprise I’ve had all film-going year). I will, however, admit a fair bit of that liking came from the sheer surprise that it actually worked at all. As a big fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, I entered very much worried that the film was just going to be a cash-in, as Hasbro threw the well-respected Friendship Is Magic licence under the bus in search of that sweet sweet Monster High money. To find the film worked at all, let alone as well as it did, was very much a nice surprise. It’s not brilliant, it’s too fast-paced and lacks material for much of its cast, but it is very fun and very good.
Rainbow Rocks, which arrives just over a year after the original film, is therefore at the disadvantage of not having the “holy crap, this actually works” card to fall back on for any of its flaws. Like it or not, the film now has to stand on its own merits. That’s pretty much the only disadvantage that the film has, though, as Rainbow Rocks is a better film than Equestria Girls in almost every single possible way. In fact, it’s way more than that. It’s one of the best animated films of the whole year. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like much, what with 2014 being a rather miserable year for animation, but it’s still worthy of the level of respect that such a statement usually holds.
We’re a while removed from the first Equestria Girls, and Canterlot High is getting ready for its first ever musical showcase, which the remaining human members of the Mane Six – Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball), Applejack (also Ashleigh Ball), Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman), Fluttershy (also Andrea Libman) and Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) – have started a band to perform in. Filling in the Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) shaped hole in the group is the recently reformed Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) who is finding it hard to integrate into the group and find acceptance at school after the whole “being evil” thing. But all is not well, for the school has been infiltrated by three Sirens that were banished from Equestria – now taking the human forms of their leader Adagio Dazzle (Kazumi Evans), the airheaded Sonata Dusk (Marÿke Hendrikse), and the permanently irritated Aria Blaze (Diana Kaarina) – who gain power by planting discord and anger in others through their singing. Realising that the Sirens are up to something, our heroes send a message to Equestria to try and get Twilight to come and help.
One may notice that that summary contained a hefty lack of Twilight Sparkle, a key segment of the character dynamics and the main protagonist of the first film. That’s actually one of Rainbow Rocks’ many strokes of genius. Twilight is not the main character, this time. In fact, she doesn’t even enter the film until about the halfway mark, and even then she’s pushed a bit more to the back than before. The film instead focuses more on the rest of the main ensemble, the point being to show how these human versions of the pony cast interact with each other as friends without Twilight. It gives them more of a spotlight, lets the viewer see them as full-on characters, and allows one to relate and love them on levels that aren’t tied to residual love for their pony incarnations, which is why the emotional stakes of the film end up carrying genuine weight this time around.
The other reason for the film’s sliding of Twilight into the “co-lead” position is the film’s best choice: Sunset Shimmer is our main protagonist. That’s not to say that the rest of the ensemble get left out, on the contrary, but most of the film is viewed from her perspective and its most prominent, not to mention best, plotline revolves around her trying to atone for her many past sins and trying to gain acceptance from other people. To put it simply; anybody who found, like I did, the main cast’s sudden forgiveness of her at the end of the first film to be extremely unearned for a character who, up until that point, had shown no reason for sympathy or forgiveness should find this more than enough of a course correct.
It, like the best moments of the show it’s spun-off from, taps into real insecurities and worries and feeds them through a character who is very easy to like. Sunset is somebody who is desperately trying and wanting to change, wanting to become a good person who helps her friends and does the right thing, but she can’t escape her past because nobody will let her forget it. Even her new and only friends keep inadvertently bringing it up regularly enough for her to be used to it. Her attempts to fit in, to gather up the courage to help out, and to completely believe that she really is capable of change are extremely well handled, able to be played for big laughs and quiet emotional nuance in equal measure, and it is the best part of the film. Credit needs to be given to both Meghan McCarthy’s excellent script and Rebecca Shoichet’s brilliant vocal work; they’ve turned a mediocre character who had pretty much no redeeming qualities into somebody I’d like to see more of whenever possible.
Speaking of that script, this is a far better paced film than the first Equestria Girls was. Whilst that film raced through plot point after plot point, whilst still finding time to work in a whole bunch of character beats to keep it from feeling like a soulless exercise in plot, Rainbow Rocks has much less plot than the first one. Much of it was actually summarised in that paragraph a while back, and the film is structured in such a way that we get far more time with the cast of characters to make its emotional beats register that much more. The first film had to tell a story and set-up the world, but the second one is able to relax and breathe more, so it feels like I’ve been able to immerse myself more in Equestria Girls’ dimension than I did the first time. Nothing is rushed, nothing feels forced excepting one bit in the finale; it all feels natural.
On that note, the humour is less pronounced this time. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a very funny movie, it’s just that the jokes are much lower-key. There’s a lack of giant laughs, although they do exist – one is a brilliant self-acknowledgement of how conflicts in the series tend to resolve without it devaluing said thing, another involves the appearance of one of Season 4 of the original show’s best one-shot characters – but the joke ratio is still high, coming from character traits and certain turns of phrase rather than extended sequences of Twilight trying to act like a person. It fits, the laughs complimenting on-screen events instead of overpowering them.
Animation is great, considering the limitations of Flash. Due to the restrictive nature of the technology, one shouldn’t expect anything close to the levels of How to Train Your Dragon 2 or The Book of Life but it’s still very good regardless, director Jayson Thiessen and the folks over at DHX really mastering this form and pushing it to its apparent limits. Character designs are distinctive without being off-putting, specifically the anthropomorphic features that the main cast take on at points are slightly less pronounced and therefore less awkward than before, whilst the colour scheme is bright and breezy, to a degree that can come across as excessive, but tempers its primary tendencies with good deployment of shades to add an actual spectrum and variety to proceedings.
Camerawork and perspectives are vastly improved, too; there are multiple instances of dollying, focus-shifting and perspective switching – manipulating the camera in a two-dimensional plane in a way that gives off the illusion of three-dimensions – that come off much smoother than they have in many prior instalments of both the show and the last film. There’s also some great board work going on here, too; sequences that are made thanks to well designed and laid out shots and images. Most specifically, there’s a musical montage late in the film of the Battle Of The Bands competition that visualises the various clashes like an actual battle with real kinetic energy that makes the sequence a lot of fun. Also it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim and I love Scott Pilgrim.
Related: the songs, penned primarily as always by Daniel Ingram, are really darn good. There’s a lack of anything that I’m still humming about 24 hours removed from being exposed to it, like the show’s best numbers ended up doing to me many times, but they also fulfil the more important job of fitting the film. They hop between genres and moods and tones – the Sirens mostly sing incredibly well-harmonised goth pop, our main cast get earnest but likeable pop rock, whilst The Great And Powerful Trixie performs a brilliantly naff early-00s electropop number – but they always feel consistent and unified whilst still having their own identity. The final battle ends up incorporating elements of heavy metal, whilst Snips & Snails have to perform an incredibly awkward rap number earlier on, yet they don’t feel out-of-place or blatantly calling out to the older segments of the audience. They fit and they work, even if the lyrics do sometimes cross the line from “earnestly rubbish” to “just plain rubbish”.
The only real knock I have against Rainbow Rocks, and by which I mean the only part that isn’t improved from the first film in any way, is with regards to the character of Flash Sentry, the teenage boy whom Twilight has a reciprocated but never openly stated crush on. He’s in the film for about the same amount of time as he was in the first one, but he’s still pointless to overall proceedings. He mainly seems to exist so that the audience has somebody to worry about when the film needs to show the effects of the hostility that the Sirens bring out in people. So he spends most of the film being a paper-thin jerk, in stark contrast to Equestria Girls where spent most of that film being a paper-thin pretty boy. He only seems to be here because nobody was confident enough to admit the character didn’t work and cut him, with his negative characterisation being a way to turn into the skid of nobody liking him. In a film where Sunset Shimmer was able to be totally redeemed as a character in the space of 75 minutes, Flash sticks out like a sore thumb.
Forget about Flash Sentry, though (heaven knows the film does for long stretches), and My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks is an unqualified triumph. A major leap forward in nearly every respect, this is what a sequel should be: using a previously established world and characters to tell a new story with character development that actually sticks, a story and set of character arcs that aren’t just rehashing the beats of the original and improving upon their problems to create a film that stands head and shoulders above its predecessor. Admittedly, if you’re not already on board the super-earnest and occasionally-proudly-cheesy My Little Pony bandwagon, this may not be the movie to convince you, even if it does have a literal music battle for a finale (that is AWESOME). But if you found yourself disappointed with the first Equestria Girls, then you should give Rainbow Rocks a shot as I guarantee you that you will find it a major leap forward comparatively.
Considering how this series first looked to be a cynical heartless cash-grab driven purely by the need to sell toys, Equestria Girls has turned into quite the fantastic little series. See, folks! Heart-on-sleeve sincerity wins out, after all! Roll on the inevitable third instalment in 12 months’ time!