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

Previous: Magical Mystery Cure Equestria Girls Next: Princess Twilight Sparkle — Part 1

Movie #1: My Little Pony: Equestria Girls

Released 6/16/2013, written by Meghan McCarthy
What has happened to it all?
"Crazy," some would say,
Where is the life that I recognize?
Gone away...
But I won't cry for yesterday, there's an ordinary world
Somehow I have to find
And as I try to make my way to the ordinary world,
I will learn to survive.
    Storyline:
  • A New Princess: The Mane Six and Spike arrive in the Crystal Kingdom for Twilight Sparkle's first princess summit. She's having trouble with her wings and is not yet comfortable with her new status.
  • Trouble in the Shadows: Sunset Shimmer, Princess Celestia's former student, steals Twilight's Element of Harmony and follows it through a mirror to another world. Twilight is sent to retrieve it, and Spike jumps in after her.
  • A Strange New World: Twilight emerges in a world of bipeds and finds that she now is one. Spike is now a dog. They begin searching for the crown in what they learn is a high school.
  • Sunset Shimmer: Twilight finds a biped equivalent of Fluttershy being questioned by Sunset Shimmer, who is also a biped here. Befriending Fluttershy, Twilight learns she found the crown and turned it in to the school. It is now the prize for the princess of the upcoming fall formal.
  • New Friends: Twilight asks Fluttershy for help running for fall formal princess. She also meets Pinkie Pie and Applejack and learns that they despise Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. They all warn her that Sunset Shimmer is sure to win.
  • Challenges: Sunset confronts Twilight and sets Snips and Snails to muckraking while Twilight goes to the school library to do research. An old yearbook photo reveals that Fluttershy, Pinkie, AJ, Rainbow, and Rarity used to be friends.
  • Eye on the Prize: The next day, Twilight is a laughingstock, thanks to a humiliating video. Her new friends gather to help her, and by comparing notes they learn it's Sunset Shimmer who's been driving them apart.
  • Heart and Determination: Applejack and Rainbow Dash reconcile, and Rainbow challenges Twilight to a soccer match. Rainbow wins but joins to help anyway. Rarity proposes unity as Canterlot Wondercolts as the theme for Twilight's campaign.
  • Rally: Twilight and friends rally the students and break up the cliques with a song in the cafeteria. Sunset Shimmer turns in photos of Twilight trashing the gym, but Flash Sentry proves the photos were doctored and also asks her to the dance. The damage forces the dance to be postponed to the following night, too late for Twilight to return to Equestria.
  • Together: The Mane Six set about resetting the decorations, and the rest of the students join in. The dance is back on and the students cast their ballots, but Sunset Shimmer is undaunted.
  • The Big Night: The Mane Six get ready and attend the fall formal, where Twilight is named princess and receives her crown. Snips and Snails kidnap Spike, drawing Twilight outside, where Sunset Shimmer threatens to destroy the portal. Twilight calls her bluff, and there is a fight for the crown.
  • A Final Stand: Sunset Shimmer gets hold of the crown. It gives her a demonic appearance, and she uses its power to control everyone inside the school. Twilight's friends stand up for her when Sunset begins her attack, and the crown activates the power of the Elements of Harmony, undoing Sunset's magic.
  • Victory: Twilight's friends offer friendship to Sunset Shimmer, and the fall formal dance is held. Twilight returns through the mirror and meets Equestria's version of Flash Sentry but insists nothing will come of it.

Character: Note: Despite their odd colorations and stylized appearance, I will be referring to the biped characters as "humans," since they resemble Earth's humans about as much as the primary residents of Equestria resemble Earth's ponies.

This is definitely Twilight's story, and it fits well into the established continuity. This is the third story in a row, after Games Ponies Play and Magical Mystery Cure, to deal with her need to conquer her anxieties for the sake of the task at hand. She has plenty of challenges in the film, some of them quite specific to fears she's had in the past, including being laughed at in school, getting in trouble with Celestia, and being separated from her friends. False accusations and romantic entanglements aren't problems she's had to deal with on the show, but either would be especially stressful for someone with her personality. Yet she only needs a little bit of prodding from Spike and the supportive faces of her friends to stand up and do what needs to be done. She's more serious and resolute during the climax than I've ever seen her in the series, and whatever her appearance, the determination in her voice should warn foes not to underestimate her.

The closeness between Twilight and Spike gets a lot of attention here, and his loyalty and focus make him more endearing here than in many of his featured episodes. He also seems to adjust to being a dog pretty quickly, possibly because dogs are a familiar species in Equestria, unlike humans. This cool-headed Spike is a far cry from the panicky one we've occasionally seen, but his personality depends so much on the writer that it's hard to tell whether it's intentional character development.

The lack of warmth in Principal Celestia's voice in her first scene is an early hint that the humans may differ from their pony counterparts. It's still something of a shock to hear the contempt the alternates of the Mane Six initially have for each other. We haven't seen the whole group quarreling like this since The Ticket Master, and this is prolonged and personal. And unlike Look Before You Sleep, the squabbling isn't played for laughs. It's supposed to make us uncomfortable, but without making the characters unlikeable. I think the script strikes the right balance here, and this lends sincerity and credibility to the unity message of Twilight's fall formal campaign.

Sunset Shimmer's character is the product (some would say the victim) of the writers' approach to the film. It's my understanding that the humanized characters and the high school setting were Hasbro's idea, and the writers chose to make the story an homage to the whole genre of high school films. The common tropes of such films are played straight for the most part, with loads of irony derived from the context: This princess from a magical land, having zero experience with humans, wants to recover her kingdom's most important defensive weapon, but to do so she must become the "new girl" and challenge the spoiled popular girl who rules the school to basically become prom queen. Because the antagonist in these movies is so well-defined (TV Tropes calls her the Alpha Bitch), Sunset's personality is largely constrained to that, at least on the surface. One addition to the basic profile is her reliance on technology, which is interesting considering the world she comes from.

Hints of something more beneath Sunset's surface appear at times. The mere fact that she once was Celestia's student means the Princess must have seen something in her at one time. But as she says, "When she did not get what she wanted as quickly as she liked, she turned cruel and dishonest. I tried to help her, but she eventually decided to abandon her studies and pursue her own path." We're not told in the film how she came to the human world, but in the first of the principal's photos she looks quite meek and would have been a freshman at the time. She may have started out in this world pretty much as Twilight did and only regained her ambition over time. Her tears as she begins to transform and her sorrow afterward are in sharp contrast to the villainous tone she otherwise displays, and I think the key here is her line, "I didn't know there was another way."

Celestia points to Sunset's ambitious nature and her feeling held back, resulting in cruelty and dishonesty. In my experience, some people are just mean from the start, but for someone who becomes dishonest, it's usually the result of fear, and cruelty an outgrowth of desperation. Mind you, this is a bit of head canon, but I suspect she saw in herself the same sort of destiny Celestia came to see in Twilight Sparkle. But whereas Twilight feels external compulsion (i.e., she worries about disappointing others), Sunset felt an internal compulsion to be what she believed she ought to be. And she couldn't get there through proper channels, so she "pursued her own path," eventually becoming actively malevolent. She thus entered the mirror a villain, but her mirror experience probably set her back again as she suffered the cruelty of the high school environment. But she was already primed to believe that the only way to protect yourself is to be on top, and she quickly learned how to claw her way up there. By the time of the movie, she really doesn't know how to do anything else and never imagined friendship would have the power it does in the show. In my mind, this makes Sunset Shimmer one of the most interesting antagonists Twilight has faced, and subsequent films make her a skillfully-developed heroic character as well.

The scenes in Equestria are short, but AJ, Fluttershy, Pinkie, Rainbow, and Rarity each get a characteristic moment or two. Celestia's attitude toward Sunset Shimmer is remarkable and sets the tone for one of the film's main themes (see below). Luna is matter-of-fact as usual, and we get to see Cadance in command mode as she instructs Twilight for her mission.


Lesson: There are really three main lessons here, two stated and one exemplified. The stated moral lesson comes from Principal Celestia, as she recognizes the sort of leadership Twilight Sparkle has demonstrated. Twilight leads by inspiration. She's always been one to give a pep talk and speak in glowing terms about friendship. She can rally those around her to action, as we've seen in It's About Time, and she loves to play the role of reconciler, as she longed to do as far back as Green Isn't Your Color. She makes you feel good about being you, and this comes across well in her verse of the title song. It's her realization that she has this strength that gives Twilight Sparkle the confidence she'll need in her role as a princess.

The friendship lesson is the unity sung about in the title song performed in the cafeteria. As a psychology major once upon a time, I took a course called Theories of Personality. What I learned is that people have proclivities and inclinations but really aren't different enough to confine to strict categories, regardless of the system. Everything's on a spectrum, and personalities even change over time. It's true that the differences between us are real, and they should be acknowledged and taken full advantage of. But at the end of it all, people are more alike than they are different. And by making this one of the film's themes, the writers actually justify the whole human counterpart thing and make it part of the lesson: Despite the drastic differences in appearance, "I look a little closer and it seems to feel familiar, too." In a sense, every person we encounter is a mirror, a counterpart, and if we think of someone we meet as another self, this may affect our treatment of them and our willingness to approach them as potential friends.

The third lesson is forgiveness. It starts with Celestia's wish for Sunset Shimmer's return, continues through Twilight's efforts to get her new Canterlot High friends to reconcile, and culminates in the offer of friendship to Sunset after her penitence in defeat. I've commented at least once in these reviews on my desire for a story specifically about forgiveness, since we see it illustrated at the end of episode after episode but without much comment or fanfare. Here it's front and center, and in such a way that it's one common point of criticism from viewers who didn't like the film. How quick should we be to forgive those who seem genuinely sorry for what they have done? Is it realistic to offer friendship to a penitent enemy? I happen to agree with the movie's answers here, but not everyone will.


Logic: As with the stable time loop in It's About Time, any alternate universe story has certain logical problems. The existence of 27 or more doppelgangers, all of them students or faculty at Canterlot High except for Twilight and Spike, who conveniently live "in the city," the similarities of roles and positions, and odd commonalities such the Cutie Mark Crusaders' song are coincidences that are staples of the format. The crown's resemblance to the sixth Element of Harmony can probably be chalked up to Sunset Shimmer's influence, given that each year's crown has a different design in the photos we see.

A logical problem more specific to this story is how Sunset Shimmer had any idea how she might use the sixth Element on its own in another world. While no answer is suggested within the film itself, we know that Sunset Shimmer was a student of Celestia's. She may have had access to studies of the Elements of Harmony (and the mirror?) from the classical era. One might even conjecture that Sunset's abuse of her knowledge was one reason so many relevant facts were kept from Twilight until the time of the series. In fact, Sunset's plan has all sorts of implications for her backstory, such as the necessity of her having visited Equestria at least once recently to gain all the knowledge of recent events necessary to pull of her scheme.

One semi-justification for the activation of the Elements at the end with only one artifact present: Since the portal is open, Twilight's pony friends are really only a few yards away, and it may be that their proximity plus the presence of her new human friends has some sort of amplifying effect that triggered the Elements. At least, that's one of several possible theories. Taken together, this film and the fourth season premiere undo much of what we (and the characters) have assumed about the Elements, and the magic involved may be more internal than even the royal sisters have supposed.

 

Resonance: There are some serious moments here. I'm seriously impressed at Twilight Sparkle's reasoning when she refuses to hand over the crown, avoiding the hostage situation cliché we've seen a million times in other fiction. Also awesome is the implicit reasoning behind Rainbow Dash's soccer challenge: Anyone about to challenge Sunset Shimmer has to be willing to try to beat an expert at her own game. Twilight has the tenacity the other Rainbow Dash once saw in Tank the tortoise, and she's at just as much of a disadvantage. The climax of the film is frightening, on a par with the darker moments of the two-parters. There's also serious heartwarming in the fact that Princess Celestia's first question when Twilight returns is whether Sunset Shimmer is all right. Just think about that for a minute.

For the most part, however, this movie is a comedy with plenty of laughs all the way through. Several funny moments appear in the opening scenes, including Fluttershy's response to Pinkie's nervicited comment and Pinkie's Transformers sound effect. I enjoyed seeing Luna wordlessly using her magic to move Pinkie away from the mirror as well. At Canterlot High, a few fun moments stood out: Applejack uncapping a cider bottle with her teeth, only to be shown up by Pinkie casually prying one off with a curl of her hair; Cheerilee's efforts to maintain her composure in the library; and Rainbow Dash's delivery of "Of course you lost, I'm awesome!" But Twilight escorting Flash Sentry right into a door got my loudest laugh.

Maybe it's just me, but there's one misstep that throws me out of the story every time. Call it a missed moment of drama. There really isn't a good "low point" in this story as there is with most of the best MLP episodes. When Twilight is shown the doctored photos of the gym, there is an opportunity for some real feels, for Twilight to be in the depths of despair for a while. This is the point I would have had her "come clean" to her new friends about where she comes from. Then their belief in her could strengthen her resolve to keep Sunset from getting the crown, just before Flash Sentry presents the proof that clears Twilight of the misdeed. Instead, only about five seconds elapse before he shows up to save the day, and the entire scene just deflates. I fear it leaves the movie without the dramatic weight it needs, it makes Sunset Shimmer seem like less of a real threat, and it makes the trashed gym seem too much like a mere bump in the road. Note to writers: Take your time with the emotional stuff; let it sink in! That makes the resolution that much sweeter. (For positive examples, see A Canterlot Wedding and The Crystal Empire; they do this phenomenally well.)

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: It's typical for theatrical releases based on currently-airing cartoon series to be (as I've read once) "slapped together more or less randomly by People Who Didn't Even Care, intended for distribution to People Who Care Just a Little Bit Less Than That." Both the film itself and the staff's comments following its release indicate that they care a great deal about their work, the effect of the story on the franchise, and how it is received by all ages of the audience. Multiple people who work on the show have insisted that nothing from the film will make its way into the TV series (Hasbro has since insisted on the occasional walk-on cameo from the pony Flash Sentry), and while they seem to believe they did a good job, the creators have an apologetic tone when the topic of the movie comes up. I honestly can't tell whether they had reservations about the teenage/humanized aspects of the story from the beginning or whether they were stunned by the hostile reception the film received in some quarters of the brony community.

Bronies spook easily, and I personally believe the format change would have been controversial in any case. But the context of mixed reactions to the semi-reforms of Trixie and Discord, Twilight's coronation, and a half-length third season followed by a nine-month hiatus, all made the response far harsher than it needed to be. Nevertheless, the polls I've seen suggest most bronies warmed to the idea of the film once the first trailer was released, gave it a chance, and enjoyed it, even though just about everyone would have preferred an all-pony movie.

There's much to praise about the music. As Twilight's singing voice (and Sunset Shimmer's speaking voice), Rebecca Shoichet is the best thing about this movie. Instrumentally, the modern pop style fits the setting much better than the usual showtune sound would have, and while songs of that style are often on the light-and-fluffy side, there are plenty of subtleties in the music, creative and relevant lyrics, and a thematic unity to the soundtrack that match or surpass what we've come to expect in this series.

G.I. Joe: The Movie had Cobra-La. The Transformers: The Movie had all sorts of plot problems. The Star Wars prequels...yeah. So I went into this prepared for disappointment. But nothing here really bothered me that much, aside from the photo scene. There are a couple ways the film could have been better, but it's very enjoyable and avoids the many pitfalls that an anthropomorphic high school movie could easily have fallen into.

 

Equestria Girls armor rating: Gold Armor
Ranked 74th of 147 stories overall.

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