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

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Episode 79: "Filli Vanilli"

Aired 2/15/2014, written by Amy Keating Rogers (her twelfth episode)
    Storyline:
  • Intro: Fluttershy is caught singing to her animals.
  • Act 1: Rarity invites Fluttershy to join the Ponytones quartet, but she declines out of stagefright. The next day, singer Big McIntosh has lost his voice.
  • Act 2: Zecora uses poison joke to give Fluttershy a low voice, allowing her to sing backstage while Big Mac lip syncs. Fluttershy enjoys herself so much that she pushes for more performances, but in the last one a falling curtain exposes her to the audience.
  • Act 3: The cheering crowd scares Fluttershy off, and her friends chase her down trying to calm her. She ultimately overcomes her fear and agrees to sing again, but only once for the time being.

Character: Fluttershy loves to sing. We've heard her sing at least ten times by now, but in most of those cases she's either apart from the rest of the Mane Six, just doing little bits in group songs, or singing very softly and gently. Her Bats duet, which is musically stronger, is structured in a way that may fit the Adaptation Hypothesis of musicals (i.e., the characters aren't really singing; their conversation is presented in song form for the benefit of us viewers). The long and short of this is that Filli Vanilli's teaser is possibly the first time the rest of the Mane Six have heard Fluttershy really let loose and sing with confidence.

It's not really a surprise that Fluttershy suffers from crippling stagefright given her hatred of being a model and her childhood bullying issues, but it's not a given either. I've had many friends who are shy and hate the spotlight but who are fine singing in a choir or ensemble, though most would be loathe to sing solo on stage. I really like how Fluttershy and her friends interact in the beginning of act one, with Rarity and Twilight being very understanding of Fluttershy, and herself politely but straightforwardly declining. This shows the growth of the characters from Green Isn't Your Color, where Rarity's insistence and Fluttershy's inability to admit her feelings led to a completely unnecessary (though entertaining) episode-long discomfort for both of them. It's also in-character that Rarity has trouble understanding Fluttershy; Rarity loves the spotlight, and her solution to Dash's stagefright in Sonic Rainboom was to add the support and attention of friends. Here, Fluttershy is already mortified that her friends have heard.

There is a potential discrepancy here with Hearth's Warming Eve, where Fluttershy feared going on stage but seemed fine during the play itself. I've seen this happen in a few performances I've been in: You can lose yourself in your character, finding some nerve by just being someone else for a while, or you can make your nervousness part of the performance. Either one works as a charitable interpretation of that episode. (A harsher verdict would be to see the stagefright of Hearth's Warming Eve as a contrivance for the sake of the backstage conflict used to teach the lesson, but the solution to stagefright is not simply dragging someone onto the stage.) So I think these two episodes are at least compatible, or if not, Filli Vanilli has the better presentation of the stagefright scenario and of a proper response to it.

We need to talk about Pinkie Pie. Her behavior in this episode prompted immediate fan debate and even some nastiness directed toward the writer in the first couple days after this episode aired. I want to make four points in defense of Pinkie's presentation in this episode:

  1. Pinkie is not out of character. While she shows a lot of sensitivity to Fluttershy in the very early episode Griffon the Brush Off, we see Pinkie act in an insensitive manner on several occasions, most notably in Luna Eclipsed, Putting Your Hoof Down, The Crystal Empire—Part 1, and arguably Pinkie Apple Pie. When she's on the receiving end of sharp comments, such as Rainbow Dash's in A Friend in Deed, she takes them in stride, showing that she's comfortable communicating on a harsher, more challenging level than most of the other main characters. In any case, Rogers has helped make Pinkie what she is, having written Bridle Gossip, The Best Night Ever, The Last Roundup, A Friend in Deed, MMMystery on the Friendship Express, and Pinkie Pride, all of which feature some degree of "bad Pinkie" behavior.
  2. It's made very clear that what Pinkie is doing is not okay.Within the story, the other characters censure Pinkie each time she gets carried away. Their reactions range from a swat with a rolled-up flyer to glares to spoken rebukes to literally levitating the pink pony away.
  3. It's obvious from Pinkie's reactions that she doesn't understand why she's scaring Fluttershy, deliberate as her actions are. She knows she's being ridiculous, and she thinks she's being helpful by being ridiculous.
  4. So what is going on with Pinkie? We've seen in Pinkie Apple Pie and other episodes that Pinkie becomes more demonstrative the more uncomfortable a situation is. Since the first season premiere, she's tried to evoke smiles and laughter as the best way to deal with stress. I'm sure that's what she's trying with Fluttershy here: in short, she's giving her something ghostly to giggle at. Her intent is to get on the other side of the Flutterfear, to overstate the "horrors" of being on stage so that Fluttershy will be forced to admit, "Silly Pinkie, you know it's not really that bad" (as Rarity is able to get Fluttershy to admit in the end). But Fluttershy doesn't work the way Pinkie does, and she instead agrees with Pinkie that yes, it really is that terrible. One thing Pinkie needs to learn is that other ponies don't think the way she does, which explains why her efforts to cheer or calm others with laughter often land pretty wide of the mark. Noticing the consequences of her actions would make a good future lesson for her.

Minor notes: Big Mac sang once before in Pinkie Apple Pie, but here we get to hear Peter New's singing voice loud and clear (when Mac's not lip syncing, anyway). It's interesting that Mac gets the same shifty-eyed look as his sister Applejack when he feels he's not being genuine. The credits do us the rare favor of identifying two new characters whose names aren't mentioned in dialogue: Toe-Tapper on tenor and Torch Song on alto. It's a shame we don't learn the name of Zipporwhill's dad. For the time being, I'm going with Nightjar, since that's the type of bird a whippoorwhill is, and it befits his grey-and-black color scheme.


Lesson: Despite what the title might lead viewers to expect, this isn't a show about dishonesty or the ethics of lip-syncing. The scenario here isn't really the deceptive marketing scheme that Milli Vanilli turned out to be. (I was and still am a fan of the group's hit songs, by the way.) It's more along the lines of voice dubbing. I'm no more bothered by the Ponytones' replacement than by the fact that American voices are dubbed over the British actors playing Rebel pilots in Star Wars, or by the fact that Kazumi Evans is doing Rarity's singing voice. If Big Mac were to rise to stardom under the assumption he was doing his own singing, or if he used Fluttershy's performances to press his advantage with an enraptured Cheerilee, that would be more of a concern. But this is just a bit of theater and it's well received by the audience.

The actual primary lesson of this episode is Fluttershy's self-limitation. She loves singing, she sings about her love of singing, but when invited to fulfill her desire, she does herself a disservice. She uses the assertive "no" that her friends learned to respect in Bats!, as well as the tearful "yes" that broke our hearts in Hurricane Fluttershy and echoed her "I can't" in Dragonshy. Her friends respect her wishes, but in this case what she really needs is a swift kick in her wiggly hindquarters to get out there and enjoy herself.

You see, Fluttershy has overcome her fears to protect her friends (Dragonshy, The Stare Master) and do her duty as a Ponyville pegasus (Hurricane Fluttershy), but never for her own desires or ambitions. If Fluttershy really enjoys singing so much, she needs to get over her irrational fears about it. That doesn't mean she should be pushed, but gently guided to overcome it herself. I think her friends (minus Pinkie) have a good balance here between respecting her choices and urging her to be her best self. Their challenging questions are actually a good example of how to steer friends to consider why they feel the way they do about any given activity.

The secondary moral, which is sort of a tag on the story, is the "baby steps" concept that could be applied to just about any of the lessons we've encountered in the past 79 episodes. It takes time to reform character, establish new habits, and adopt new attitudes. That's an excellent thing for a series and its viewers to keep in mind, especially as the stories are getting more serial than episodic. It also provides a cover for the fact that multiple episodes are written at once and therefore they can't easily incorporate the lessons learned in the stories that came just before.


Logic: For those interested in the series timeline, we have a reference to the annual zap apple harvest on the same night as an event at Sugarcube Corner which might possibly be the Cake twins' birthday. That would place this episode either one or two years after the second season's Family Appreciation Day, which was followed by Baby Cakes. Connections: This episode features a rare flashback to clips from Bridle Gossip.

 

Resonance: Cuteness, humor, drama, and awesome background stuff abound in this episode. I love how Fluttershy's enjoyment of music is portrayed. We so often see her holding herself back that it's a joy to see her so expressive. Her cowering and tears have tugged at our heartstrings in the past, but it seems she's deliberately drawn a little less cute in those moments this time, with the intended viewer response being, "C'mon, get over this," not derisively but out of genuine concern. Nevertheless, like Hurricane Fluttershy and its wall of eyeballs, this episode shows us what Fluttershy's fear feels like, and it does so in a genuinely frightening way.

At this point in my reviews, I'm not taking the space to point out all the times I laugh, but my favorite fun moments are Bon Bon playing with the seal, the seal and beaver playing together at the end, the split-second night-to-day transition, Gummy's cameo, the over-the-top cliffhanger when it's revealed Big Mac has lost his voice, and the exchange between AJ and Big Mac when Fluttershy runs off.

In other news, Jackalopes are wonderful.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: A bit of personal background may explain why I love this episode so much: My dad's a professional musician, and I've sung alone and in groups since childhood. I'm also a long-time fan of barbershop and other relatively simple a cappella music, or anything full of clingy, swingy, singy harmony. (Digression: The Ponytones' song isn't anything even close to barbershop. It starts out more doo-wop and moves closer to R&B as the drum machine kicks in and Fluttershy does more improvising. If you want barbershop, check out any of the videos on this channel.)

Anyway, everything about music in this story just feels right, such as the multiple shows a day, the need to rearrange songs when a singer's out and how much time that can take, and the time required to bring a lost singing voice back to performance quality. I'm also happy to see a ponylike habit on display, in this case bolting as a fear response, used to the point of comedy in the third act. ("Can we please stop running?")

This episode also features my favorite storyboarding work of the season, which is really saying something. The background is jam-packed with things going on that couldn't possibly have been in the script, with lots of attention to reaction shots and interesting character pairings. There's much to spot on repeat viewings, such as Apple Bloom and AJ's nonplussed expressions at Goldie Delicious, the fact that Flutter gives the bear an entire beehive for honey (no wonder the bees don't like her two episodes from now), Cranky's presence at the turkey call, the fireflies providing stage lighting, Toe-Tapper's cutie mark (a star made out of eighth notes), the list goes on and on.

I like the pacing as well: Since the lip syncing only occupies the second act, we have most of the first act and all of the third to deal with the real issue of the episode, so there's no chance it will be missed. Also, the long sequence of Fluttershy literally running from her dream makes the point while setting off a huge emotional payoff when she finally performs in the open, looking as happy as we've ever seen her.

The end result for me is a new favorite Fluttershy episode and the best standalone episode so far this season, as well as the top-ranking episode so far to heavily feature Rarity.

 

Filli Vanilli armor rating: Crystal Mail
Ranked 6th of 26 season-four episodes
Ranked 32nd of 147 stories overall

Click HERE for Character Appearance List and Screentime.

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