MLP:FiM Episode Reviews: Character and Story Analysis by Half the Battle

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Episode 22: "A Bird in the Hoof"

Aired 4/8/2011, written by Charlotte Fullerton (her third episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Angel interrupts Fluttershy's care for an injured mouse to remind her she's late "for a very important date."
  • Act 1: Twilight nervously awaits Princess Celestia's visit to Ponyville. Celestia introduces Fluttershy to her sick-looking pet bird Philomena, but the Princess is called away and leaves the bird there.
  • Act 2: Fluttershy takes the pet home and tries to care for it. Every effort makes the bird sicker and causes it to lose feathers. Twilight visits and discovers the bird, which has been reported missing.
  • Act 3: Twilight shoos away guards looking for the bird and tries to care for it herself, but Philomena escapes. After a long chase, the bird bursts into flame just as Celestia arrives. She then orders the bird back to life, revealing that Philomena is a phoenix and that this is a natural part of the bird's life cycle.

Character: Fluttershy is very definitely herself in this episode, and the great character-related strength of this story is that Act 2 dwells on Fluttershy's talent rather than her fears—even though she isn't successful in actually trying to care for the bird. Of the Mane Six, it seems Fluttershy is the most prone to being a one-note character because her shyness is so pronounced, and so I appreciate the episodes where her better side shines through.

In episode 2 we saw the Mane Six bow as Celestia returned from captivity, all except for Twilight who greeted her with a hug. It seems Twilight has slipped from perceiving her teacher as approachable. Twilight's portrayal is consistent with her concerns in Swarm of the Century and her total breakdown in Lesson Zero. Unfortunately, her fear of Princess Celestia's vengeance is played for laughs. I found the whole banishment thing funny on first viewing, but it stings a bit in light of Lesson Zero and any serious reflection on her relationship with the Princess. Does Twilight really think Celestia would do such a thing to her or her friend for a well-intentioned impulse? If so, how would Celestia feel knowing her "prize pupil" thought of her this way? Okay, I admit I'm taking this a bit too seriously. The primary genre for this series is comedy, after all. But on the other hand, irrational fear of what our loved ones think of us is an important enough issue that I'd like to see Twilight's perception of Celestia receive extended attention.

Also, I'm a bit troubled at Twilight's immediate refuge in lying and sneaking around without a thought given to honesty. She's never been above a small social white lie, but most children raised by parents of strong character are taught fairly early on that owning up to your mistakes is a big deal and that lying about misbehavior is usually a worse transgression than the act itself. Within the show, we've already seen Twilight quick to confess and ask forgiveness, and she's getting more and more into the pattern of giving advice to her friends. To urge Fluttershy into deception is just way out of step with her established pattern of behavior.

On a more positive note, Princess Celestia is just wonderful here. Some of her best moments in the series (so far) are in this episode, as she maintains her dignity while conveying warmth and hinting at a deeper personality: having a pet, and an ornery one at that, teasing the Cakes to relieve tension, etc.

The rest of the Mane Six, particularly Rarity and Pinkie Pie, come across as social buffoons, deliberately as a way of ratcheting up Twilight's anxiety. Does Pinkie have the social sensibilities of a six-year-old? (An argument could actually be made for this from other episodes, but still she's usually better than this.) But it's especially odd for Rarity to be so...uncouth. I sense the writer is trying to derive laughs from showing the characters at their worst when they should be at their best. This is achieved far more effectively in the season finale. Speaking of which, this visit must have assuaged any doubts Celestia might have had that the Mane Six would send the gala into chaos.

The Cakes appear so rarely in the series that it's difficult to locate any characteristic other than perpetual nervousness. Since they're almost like adoptive parents to Pinkie Pie, I'd like to see them rounded out a little more.


Lesson: One of several episodes whose point is, "This all could have been avoided if you'd just said something at the beginning." The message is true enough in a general sense; lack of communication is an easy way to drive a plot with misunderstandings. But the wording of the final scene is ambiguous as to the intended takeaway. Should we have to ask before trying to solve a problem, ask before taking what belongs to someone else, or ask before jumping to conclusions? The first would be problematic, whereas the latter two are legitimate morals. In any case, the lesson misses a bit here since Celestia was called away so suddenly: When would Fluttershy have had the chance to ask the Princess about the bird's condition? It actually seems like she was about to, and one could make the case that she actually did the right thing given the circumstances. Changing one or two lines of dialogue would help clarify the moral.

Continuing my thoughts in the Character section, the better message of this episode would have been the assumptions the characters made about the Princess. Twilight's perception of Celestia as harsh and condemning is really one more variety of prejudice and parallels some children's unjustified assumptions about teachers or even their own parents. Certainly, there are some parents and other authority figures who are actually like this, and some fans have portrayed Celestia as a tyrant in fanfic (usually in jest). But it's important for children to be taught to trust the adults in their lives, especially if they find themselves in serious trouble.


Connections: A phoenix family in the wild is important to the story of Spike's Quest in the second season. Body Count: Rainbow says to a royal guard, "Hello, anybody home?" Rarity says, "Nobody move and my dress won't get hurt!"

 

This doesn't reflect on the episode, but I suppose this is as good a spot as any for a comment/rant about a fan fiction pet peeve of mine. I have observed that many otherwise good stories have Twilight be nonsensically secretive, not just with Princess Celestia, but with her friends, sometimes even taking them on missions and directing them through step by step while ignoring their questions about what the mission is, usually with no justification for keeping them in the dark except that it builds suspense for the reader. It is improper to make characters behave irrationally or contrary to their character for the mere purpose of reader response. This fan-given trait contradicts her pattern of forthrightness that we see on the show, and I suspect some of that stems from Twilight's behavior in this episode. After all, in Green Isn't Your Color, Twilight's struggle was to keep her mouth shut; her nature practically compels her to be direct with her friends.

 

Resonance: The opening homage to the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland might have been more effective if more subtle (e.g., Angel putting on a waistcoat instead of doing a dialogue check), but Fluttershy's repeated returns to thank Angel were pretty funny. The party antics and Fluttershy's efforts with Philomena miss the mark of comedy for me for various reasons, as does the chase scene, which we saw before in The Ticket Master. None of the humor was bad, but some of it felt like I was watching another show. The end of the episode is more successful: warm as Twilight and Fluttershy each step in front of the other to take the blame for the incident, sad given the reactions to Philomena's temporary death, and awesome as we see Philomena's phoenix form and her interaction with the cast.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: For all its issues, this story does an excellent job with its reveal. We see Philomena inexplicably burst into flames and land as a pile of ashes caught by a tearful Fluttershy—the first death we've seen in the series. Princess Celestia arrives just then and bows her head to the ashes, eyes closed. The music makes this very effective. She then chuckles and we learn the secret of Philomena's true nature as the bird returns to life. (For those wondering, yes the writer could have done without the reveal if this had been a more serious episode and if the death had a more rational cause than spontaneous combustion. For a comedic episode, the twist is a more appropriate alternative.)

I don't want to tear down this episode. I really don't. It has some really good moments, and even the jokes that don't work are as intricately and carefully animated and timed as always. But I believe this is an example of the creators still finding their footing with regard to the show, or perhaps getting experimental and working out where they might like to go from here. But for relying on gags that seem drawn from more conventional cartoons, for an art style that's quite grotesque by the standards of the show, and for making light of one of the main character's more serious ongoing issues, I have to grade this episode down. There's just enough charm with Fluttershy and Celestia to keep this from the very bottom of the list, and I would still resist describing it as bad. But I'm glad most of MLP:FiM has a different look and feel than what we get here.

(Note: As much as the show's creators care about their work and interact with fans, it's possible they may come across this review. If you helped make this episode and I'm offbase in my understanding of it or have overlooked its strengths, you're welcome to give me the "Marshall McLuhan from Annie Hall" treatment and show me the insights I've missed.)

 

A Bird in the Hoof armor rating: Leather Vest
Ranked 25th of 26 season-one episodes
Ranked 143rd of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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