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

Previous: The Cutie Re-Mark Part 2 Equestria Girls: Friendship Games Next: The Crystalling Part 1

Movie #3: My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Friendship Games

Released 9/26/2015, written by Josh Haber
    Storyline:
  • Opening: Summoned to the school over nothing more than a broken guitar string, Sunset Shimmer notices a girl examining the statue that is the portal to Equestria. The girl turns out to be Crystal Prep student Twilight Sparkle, who uses her readings to invent a magic-detecting locket. Canterlot High's Mane Six surmise the student was a Crystal Prep student intent on vandalism, since the two schools are about to compete in the Friendship Games.
  • CHS Rally: Though Canterlot High always loses to Crystal Prep, Rainbow Dash successfully leads the students in a pep rally and surprisingly "ponies up" while doing it. Vice Principal Luna warns the Mane Six not to use magic during the games, so Sunset writes to Equestria's Twilight for an explanation of their magic. Meanwhile, Crystal Prep's Twilight hopes to use the games as an opportunity to research the strange goings-on at CHS.
  • What More Is Out There?: Twilight sings about her dissatifaction with life at Crystal Prep as she is called to Principal Cinch. Cinch compels her to become a contestant in the Friendship Games, using as leverage Twilight's application to transfer to an independent study program.
  • Crystal Prep Arrives: Arriving for the competition, Twilight finds herself somehow recognized by the students at CHS. As she wanders past the Mane Six, Rarity ponies up after a display of generosity, but her magic is drained by Twilight's locket. Warned by Principal Cinch to stay away from the CHS students, Twilight leaves, but as she goes, her locket dispels the magic of the portal to Equestria.
  • Welcome Party: Pinkie recruits Twilight to help her break the ice at a party for the two schools, but when Pinkie ponies up, her magic is drained by the locket, which opens up a small portal beneath the bleachers. The next day, the games' first event is an academic decathlon, which is won by Crystal Prep. Twilight meets Fluttershy outside the school and accidentally drains her magic when Fluttershy ponies up from her kindness. Several portals open up, and Twilight's dog Spike leaps through one of them and returns able to talk.
  • Twilight the Spy: Suspicious that the Mane Six who met Twilight earlier are the same six students competing in the games, Principal Cinch orders Twilight to feign friendship and spy on them. During the athletic competition, Applejack assists Twilight and ponies up, and the draining of her magic opens portals that bring vicious giant plants that disrupt the games. Rainbow Dash ponies up while saving Sunset Shimmer, and her public draining makes it clear that Twilight's locket is responsible. CHS wins this second event.
  • The Magic Is Going Haywire!: Sunset Shimmer angrily confronts Twilight, while Principal Cinch demands that Canterlot High forfeit the games due to their use of magic (which, she claims, includes the "trained attack plants"). Principal Celestia insists on allowing the third and final event.
  • Unleash the Magic: Cinch entices Twilight to release the magic stored in her locket, and she does so as the third event is announced. The magic transforms her into a monstrous form, and she begins opening large portals to Equestria that threaten the existence of both worlds. The efforts of the Mane Six to protect the other students causes the locket to return their magic, which Sunset Shimmer uses to talk Twilight down. Everything returns to normal and, despite Cinch's protests, Principal Celestia declares the students of both schools to be winners.
  • Closing: Having discovered friendship, Twilight decides to cancel her application to independent study and transfer to Canterlot High instead. Shortly thereafter, Equestria's Twilight Sparkle finally comes through the portal, having been delayed by Starlight Glimmer's temporal shenanigans.

Character: The human world's Twilight Sparkle, commonly called Sci-Twi by show staff and fans alike, must have been a challenge to flesh out. She serves as a foil for both the pony Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer, while being distinct enough to be her own character. This is a girl who values herself for the same reasons anyone else cares about her: her intelligence, her workmanship, her academic success. It's understandable that she wants out of Crystal Prep: It's easy to miss but Principal Cinch's song indicates that her best students already have a habit of "disappearing" to other schools. Twilight's desire is for solitary research. But unlike the pony Twilight, Sci-Twi hasn't had the chance to reject friendship. At Crystal Prep it doesn't even present itself as an option. The film drives this home when she's welcomed at Canterlot High (mistaken for our Twilight), whereas she was ignored or shoved around at her own school. As an obedient student, she doesn't know to stand up to Principal Cinch, and in such an unfriendly environment she has no strong set of ethical beliefs or reason to care for the people and the world around her, at least nothing strong enough to restrain her thirst for knowledge. As I see it, this puts a sad twist on her transformation into Midnight Sparkle. Beneath her superficial ranting, she's not the power-hungry tyrant that Sunset Shimmer was; she's a broken child made deadly, like Shinji Ikari saying, "Nobody wants me. So, everybody just die."

Also, just a note on Twilight's design: Per character designer Kora Kosicka, Princess Twilight's human form was already based on the look of private school uniforms, so they really had to go the extra mile to make Sci-Twi look more severe.

Meanwhile, Sunset's continuing to grow her character. Her challenge this time around is to learn independence in Princess Twilight's absence, and to become an active helper and befriender. In the meantime, and I am grateful to the creators for this touch of realism, she retains some of the temper and self-focus she had during her days of villainy, and by it she blames herself for everything...which leads to her understandable explosion at the innocently clueless Twilight. I really love what they're doing with Sunset, but I do take issue with her holding the Idiot Ball at the beginning so the others can give us exposition on the Friendship Games and Crystal Prep. They talk to her as if she's a newcomer, but Sunset's been at four fall formals by now. So if the games and the rivalry are such a big deal, she ought to know as much about them as everyone else.

The rest of the old main characters get some love in their ponying-up scenes but are otherwise mostly in the background or giving exposition. I'm fine with that, since it keeps the focus tight on the two leads and makes room for the Crystal Prep characters: Sugarcoat, Indigo Zap, Sour Sweet, Sunny Flare, and Lemon Zest. These five seem like they'd be a lot of fun as recurring characters if this were a series. They're sort of twisted takes on AJ, Dash, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie, but not merely evil duplicates. Unfortunately, they only get enough time to demonstrate one trait apiece, and Sunny Flare really doesn't get any character-specific material at all. That's not unheard of in MLP, but since they were featured in the opening credits, I was expecting a lot more.

Principal Cinch is nakedly ambitious, openly threatening, and deliciously evil. That isn't unrealistic; in fact, the real world could use a lot fewer of this kind of people. But in fiction this is the sort of villain I love to see. Her smug audacity makes both her advancement and her comeuppance a delight.


Lesson: The two leads each have their own journey in this story, and they're both very relatable. Twilight's quest for "more" is right on the nose for a lot of people, and it's not good for anyone to always be alone; we weren't designed to find fulfillment in isolation but in relationship.

Sunset's lesson is spelled out at film's end and is a foil to Twilight's lesson: "I was so busy waiting for someone else to give me the answers that I gave up looking for them myself." Even as friends bear each other's burdens, each of us must take the initiative to carry what we can. If there's anything we can do for ourselves, it's not enough to just wait for someone else to come in and save the day.

Friendship Games also illustrates friendliness by the contrast between the two schools, especially in how they handle the wins and losses during the competition.


Resonance: Like Rainbow Rocks before it, Friendship Games hits us with more than its share of cinematic wonder. Most of the music here is incredible, but the academic decathlon sequence crams so much fun and awesomeness into the music, lyrics, and visuals that I've probably watched it more times than any other single scene in MLP. Midnight Sparkle's design is fantastic, cool and creepy, and a definite improvement on the two previous films' demonic forms (which weren't that bad to begin with, in my opinion). And while I was taught archery in high school, adding motocross to the athletic event is ridiculous, but feasible or not, that part of the competition is a thrill even before the plants show up.

The latter half of the film also gives us chills to match the thrills. The aforementioned plants are fairly cartoonish compared to the TV series' plunder vines, but they come close enough to eating the characters that we definitely feel a sense of peril. "Unleash the Magic" is effectively tense and even cruel if you identify with Twilight's vulnerability. The movie's most frightening moment is when Twilight is engulfed by her magic while crying for help. In those seconds it's obvious she's just a scared, helpless teen who has no idea what's about to happen to her.

And it's with Twilight that the film finds its drama. The song "What More Is Out There" is Disneyesque in the best way and is loaded with double and even triple meanings. Even apart from her similarity to Princess Twilight, we like her, we feel like we know here, and most importantly, we care what happens to her. And her whole existence is plenty sad. There were times I wanted to tear through the TV screen and make things all right for her, and Sunset's angry outburst at Twilight sent me into tears along with her.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of cute and tender moments throughout the story. Spike is adorable as an actual dog, and I liked seeing Trixie evidently warming up to Rainbow Dash during the pep rally, Derpy comforting the increasingly Woobie-ish Flash Sentry, Rarity encouraging Sunset Shimmer, and Twilight forgoing Applejack's high-five in favor of a hug. Sugarcoat is an endless fountain of deadpan humor, and my other laugh-out-loud moments involved Rarity's outfits, Flash and Bon Bon's attempt at baking a cake, Pinkie's eyes drifting for no reason, and Sour Sweet's exasperation during the race, and backing away from the talking dog.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: This film first aired on TV shortly after the episode Made in Manehattan, ten episodes before the end of the fifth season, but Twilight Sparkle's line at the very end reveals that it takes place concurrent with the season finale.

I have to give praise to the character and set design teams for all their work here. The animators give some of the old background humans a bit of personality this time, and the designers have created a whole new set of students for Crystal Prep, some of whom get a lot of time as the other six competitors in the games. I'm also really happy with the drum major.

For all the good of this movie, I do have two major problems with the storytelling. First, one of my pet peeves is the cliche of casting a rival sports team as the bad guys, villains and cheaters, while the school our heroes attend is all goodness and light. I think it's an especially bad idea to pair this trope with a negative image of prep schools. Smart doesn't mean snooty, and schools geared toward traditional methods and a faster learning pace aren't any less friendly than your average public school. Second, I think it's a major stretch to think the schools would have allowed the second contest to continue in the middle of all the plants and portals. Every reaction video I've seen and every person I've watched the movie with was pulled out of the story at this point and missed a lot of the action because they were dumbfounded at the lack of concern for the students' safety.

I also have a couple more minor, perhaps nitpicky issues with the film. Principal Cinch's instructions to Twilight, to stay away from the girls, and later to spy on them, don't seem to have anything to do with the plot of the story; it just seems like padding. Also, the intended nature of the third event falls through the cracks because there's so much going on. (Luna says it's a find-the-flag contest, but I only caught the line on my third viewing.) Finally, I'm not sure how I feel about Celestia declaring everyone winners at the end. As Sunset says in an earlier scene, it doesn't count if the other side doesn't really think they lost.

Even so, I count Friendship Games the most entertaining of the Equestria Girls films so far, with fabulous animation and music just as good as in Rainbow Rocks. But the story problems give me reservations about ranking it higher than the TV series' best episodes.

 

Friendship Games armor rating: Diamond Vest
Ranked 64th of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

Previous: The Cutie Re-Mark Part 2 Equestria Girls: Friendship Games Next: The Crystalling Part 1