It’s about 3 years too late, will win no new fans, and never escapes feeling like The Film of The TV Show, but My Little Pony: The Movie serves as an enjoyable microcosm of why Friendship is Magic is so beloved.
Note: this review originally appeared on Set The Tape (link).
I haven’t watched My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in about three years, since Season 5 started. Whilst I’ve heard that the show’s taken something of an awkward nose-dive in quality since then, as almost all animated television shows eventually succumb to, that eventual drop from regular viewing had nothing to do with the show itself, since Friendship is Magic actually helped me get through Sixth Form. I was a latecomer to the show, started watching in late-2012, but I was won over super quickly and it provided a comfort source during a time in my life where I was especially lonely, lost, and emotionally burnt-out.
See, in terms that those outside of the fandom might be able to understand, the reasons why Friendship is Magic became such a juggernaut for those first few years of its existence are rather similar to why Fast & Furious, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the LEGO movies, and even Wonder Woman (to an extent) have conquered the film industry in recent years. Sure, it’s teeth-rottingly sweet and tied to a toy line which does make it a glorified toy commercial in many ways, but it’s also really sweet and heartfelt, earnestly sincere about its central message about the power of friendship – friendship is LITERALLY MAGIC that can defeat or reform any evil of the world all by itself – and completely unashamed of itself in any way. It’s uncomplicated, bordering on simplistic at times, but, in its best episodes, that core tenancy, helped by a strong central cast of female characters (each of whom are distinct from one another in a way that many female characters on cartoon shows still aren’t), works gangbusters and creates surprisingly powerful television. And then sometimes, things get a little too Wachowski in the cheese department, but I’m a mega-Wachowski fan, so I’m not bothered.
It’s that proud sincerity, that genuine earnestness, that makes Friendship is Magic work so well and what ended up revitalising the largely-dead My Little Pony brand in both credibility and merch sales. So, now, having weathered seven seasons, two networks, the loss of its creator (Lauren Faust who departed midway through Season 2), a way way way way better than a blatant Monster High rip-off had any right to be spin-off (Equestria Girls) with its own series of feature films (also way way way better than they had any right to be), a periphery demographic that both intentionally and unintentionally hogged most discussion surrounding the show, and at least three years after the series hit its cultural peak, Friendship is Magic has finally received a proper cinematic adaptation in My Little Pony: The Movie and it’s… fine.
The reason I spent so long going on about why the show worked in the intro is because you can basically apply it wholesale to why My Little Pony: The Movie is such an enjoyable watch. What we’ve got here, folks, is a textbook example of The Film of The TV Show. My Little Pony is basically one of the show’s two-parter season-bookending adventures, the ones that provide the lion’s share of the show’s action sequences, only stretched out to cover 90-ish minutes instead of 44-ish. It’s set in the show’s chronology, between Season 7 and the upcoming Season 8, but has also deliberately frozen out any possible narrative progress that the show has made since the end of Season 4. And despite being a BIG SCREEN MOVIE, one that opens up the world outside Equestria and introduces plenty of new characters with BIG NAME CELEBRITY VOICES, nothing happens to the status quo and the film ends with everything intentionally self-contained and unlikely to ever be referenced again outside of a brief throwaway gag or something.
This means that My Little Pony: The Movie has been purposefully limited from achieving any rung higher than “very good” from the outset of its creation. It’s not meant to be a work of art in its own right so much as an encapsulation of why the show it’s spawned from works so well, something to be enjoyed for 90 minutes and then disposed of in favour of the real thing. It’s filler, like an anime movie, since big changes are reserved for the TV show, where every one of its fans will definitely be able to see them, and this is more of a fun side-story. Of course, the flipside of this is also that this is very much a Fans Only proposition, since if Friendship is Magic is complete anathema to you, then absolutely no part of The Movie is going to alter your stance on it, whilst newcomers may be left curious as to why Friendship is Magic has built up such a cult given the intentional disposability of the movie.
Yet, even with those caveats – and the fact that Sia shows up as a pony that looks exactly like her, to sing a thoroughly mediocre original Sia song (a.k.a. a Sia song) and stiltedly deliver maybe five lines tops whilst everyone in the film fawns over her; this stuff’s gonna age well, I can tell – I had a really good time with My Little Pony: The Movie, for much the same reasons that I have enjoyed the show in the past. It’s a sweet, hopeful, deliberately modest little movie about the magic of friendship and the power of positivity and kindness that is fully unashamed of that fact. The Mane 6 – still consisting of alicorn Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), pegasi Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball) and Fluttershy (Andrea Libman), earth ponies Applejack (also Ashleigh Ball) and Pinkie Pie (also Andrea Libman), and unicorn Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) – and ever-loyal assistant Spike the Dragon (Cathy Weseluck) are still really entertaining characters who are a joy to watch and voiced to near-perfection by their returning Show VAs, even if some of the cast end up being disappointingly short-changed by the narrative.
Meanwhile the film’s plot – which, for the record, involves Equestria being invaded by the forces of the evil Storm King (Liev Schreiber) and his commander Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt, killing it as always) who want the magic of the land’s princesses, necessitating Twilight and her friends journey outside of Equestria to seek help – allows for a strong decon-recon of the show’s central tenants (FRIENDSHIP IS ALL-REDEEMING MAGIC) without forcing it to become untrue to itself. There’s even a legitimately affecting sequence of drama prior to the final third. Whilst that journey outside of Equestria allows for director Jayson Thiesson and primary writer Meghan McCarthy to indulge themselves fully in an “appreciation” for 90s Disney animated features. Liberally cribbing from Aladdin in an untrustworthy barter-town where our group meets a smooth-talking feline con artist (Taye Diggs, so smooth), The Little Mermaid in a sequence set underwater and a musical number that gets a little too close to its “inspiration” for its own good, and even Treasure Planet when they stow away on a ship of former pirates (led by Zoe Saldana) who have lost their mojo.
Fortunately, it’s the right kind of “appreciation,” since the reference points have been adopted by both the original songs – still written by series mainstay Daniel Ingram and, whilst nowhere near his best work, they’re fun songs that definitely get a boost from the power of a proper orchestra and the singing talents of cast members like Ball, Diggs, Blunt, and Kristin Chenoweth – and the animation. The Movie has been animated in Toon Boom’s Harmony software, rather than the Adobe Flash that the series is done in, and I love the results, even if they’re not outstanding on a raw quality level. It’s not a 1:1 translation, too, so everything’s curvier, lacking in fine lines that otherwise draw attention to the artificiality of the world, environments display more life in their designs, and there are extra little details that I adore, like the sparkles that are present in every pony’s eyes. The camera swoops and swings, and the CGI enhancements allow the action to go bigger than before, but my favourite touch is the deliberately stylised boarding of the musical numbers that, again, recall 90s Renaissance Disney. It’s a commitment that, coupled with the film’s obvious heart-on-sleeve earnestness, keeps these pilferings from feeling like full-on theft.
Like I said, this is not going to make any new converts, is breaking no new ground for the franchise – both in a meta sense, there was a My Little Pony movie back in 1986, and in a show-specific sense, as our villains are “a poor man’s mashup of Discord and Sombra” and “a mediocre Sunset Shimmer do-over” respectively – and never rises above the level of pretty good. But I really enjoyed watching My Little Pony: The Movie. Watching it, I was reminded of why I used to love watching Friendship is Magic so much. That pure, bleeding, open heart of genuine sweetness that pierces through any cynicism (including that inherent to the enterprise itself) and feels like a warm hug around my own heart. It’s comforting, inviting, and something that I can partially credit with helping me reject the bitter cynicism of my teenage years in favour of the person I am today. The Movie never manages to achieve the same effect as the show’s best episodes, but it’s a really enjoyable time that put a nice big smile on my face and made me want to dive back in all over again. Since that’s arguably the best it could achieve, I’d say that’s Mission Accomplished.
Callie Petch is gonna put their hooves up high.