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

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Movie #6: My Little Pony: The Movie

Released 10/6/2017, story by Meghan McCarthy and Joe Ballarini; screenplay by Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao, and Michael Vogel
    Storyline:
  • In Canterlot, a nervous Twilight Sparkle asks the other three princesses for special favors to enhance her Friendship Festival, but she is turned down.
  • As Twilight's friends make preparations for the festival, they assure her in song.
  • As music VIP Songbird Serenade arrives, ships appear carrying the forces of the Storm King, led by rogue unicorn Tempest Shadow. Twilight and her friends escape, but the other princesses are turned to stone.
  • Following Celestia's final, interrupted instruction, Twilight leads her friends south to find the hippos. Tempest reports to the Storm King that he will be able to harness their power with a magical staff once the final princess is captured.
  • In the Badlands, the Mane Six and Spike find a town full of ruffians, and are taken into the care of a con artist named Capper, who tips off one of his creditors.
  • Tempest traces Twilight to the town as Capper helps the ponies discover they need to look for the hippogriffs. Capper's creditor Virko arrives, intent on selling the ponies into slavery, just as Tempest also shows up. The resulting distraction allows Twilight's team to escape and stow away on a ship.
  • Capper leads Tempest in the wrong direction. The ponies are quickly caught by the ship's crew, who work for the Storm King. Learning the crew used to be independent pirates, Rainbow Dash persuades them in song to return to their original calling.
  • Against Twilight's advice, Dash caps off her song with a rainboom that alerts Tempest to their location. As Tempest boards the ship, the ponies bail out, unsure whether the pirates will give them up.
  • Tempest destroys the rogue ship, leaving the fates of Capper and the pirates uncertain. Twilight's team reaches the home of the hippogriffs and finds it abandoned, except for a voice they follow into a whirlpool.
  • Under the water, Twilight's team meets the seaponies, whom they quickly learn are hippogriffs in hiding, transformed by a magic pearl. When they their queen is reluctant to help, Twilight has her friends befriend them while (unbeknownst to them) she tries to steal the pearl. The queen banishes the ponies to the surface.
  • Twilight's friends rebuke her, and she blames them for the various problems during the mission. As she sulks alone with Spike, she is snatched away by Tempest's ship.
  • Tempest tells the captured Twilight about her background to convince her friendship has failed both of them.
  • Spike tells the other ponies of Twilight's capture, just as Capper and the pirates appear out of nowhere to help. Princess Skystar of the seaponies also offers her assistance. Tempest returns to Canterlot with Twilight. The Storm King powers up his staff using the power of the four princesses and begins playing with it haphazardly.
  • Twilight's friends and their allies begin their assault on the enemy forces in Canterlot.
  • The Storm King betrays his agreement to restore Tempest's broken horn, and creates a whirlwind as he battles with Twilight. Tempest and the allies join the fight. Ultimately the Storm King is turned to stone and shatters after a fall.
  • Sia performs in concert as the friends and freed Canterlot ponies celebrate. At Twilight and Pinkie's suggestion, Tempest provides fireworks.

Character: Let me begin by saying I'm ok with who's not in this picture. I understand some viewers want to see everyone in a movie like this. I'm reminded of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, where by the fourth season we had a number of characters rotating in and out of the cast, but in that season's climactic showdown, the active players were whittled down to the four who started it all. Even though Friendship Is Magic has established other characters who might be a match for the Storm King, it just seems right for Equestria to depend on the Mane Six and Spike in their first major theatrical event. Besides, it's not hard to come up with reasons they might not be able to contact the pillars, rely on Discord to oppose a villain so like his old self, or go to such an obvious hiding place as the Friendship Castle for guidance. In the real world, I'm guessing the script was being put together before the TV creators had decided to bring back the Pillars or nailed down Starlight and Trixie's eventual place in the show. That duo and Discord do get shout-outs in the movie's animation and end credits.

The Movie's Twilight Sparkle illustrates where our characters are at this point in the series, in their practice of friendship. For all their maturing and their lessons learned, they're not flawless. They still carry the potential to go back to old habits and attitudes. For Twilight, that means impatience and in this case irritability. You can tell she'd rather do this quest alone, not just to avoid putting her friends at risk, but so that she can use her focus and resolve to do whatever needs to be done. Instead, their enjoyment of laughter and friendship trips up her plans every step of the way. She's already stressed out at the beginning of the story, and a little quick to snap at Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie. From the end of "You Got This" all the way through to Seaquestria, we see her anger and frustration build as her instincts to stay on mission and aloof from strangers are proven right time and again.

So when she decides to use her friends' penchant for fun to strategic if dishonest advantage, it's no surprise. Well, it surprised me on first viewing; it's one of the worst things she's ever done. But it's not out of character. And it makes her explosion at Pinkie Pie more believable. That confrontation scene is powerful because it's such a real moment for the team: her friends rightly call her out, she gets defensive, and spits her pent-up resentment right back at them, revealing along the way her loss of faith in friendship.

She gets it back, of course. By all evidence, the captured Twilight is sincerely caring toward Tempest and not merely trying to turn her for strategic reasons. But where was that faith earlier in the movie. Didn't she just learn the same lesson in Shadow Play? Yes, but that's one more example, along with several recent Twilight episodes, that this is an ongoing struggle for her. She needs to plan, to have a solution ahead of time, to know that she knows, rather than improvise or trust things to work themselves out, or trust others to solve problems. Unclear paths and uncertain alliances strike her as problems to be avoided, not opportunities for unexpected solutions. Besides all this, the other ponies' actions in making friends here involve several missteps that do get the team into trouble, but Twilight is wrong to think friendship itself is the hindrance.

As a side note, in Tempest's song she addresses Twilight as "little one." After all this time, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that however you figure the timeline, Twilight is still only in her twenties—plenty young enough to be making youthful mistakes. So it's understandable if she sometimes needs somepony a little older, a Celestia or even a Starlight Glimmer, to keep her from forgetting her life lessons.

One fault in Twilight's presentation is that one of her key powers seems forgotten: her ability to teleport. By this point, she can zap herself practically all over Equestria. Just a moment is all she should need to remove herself and her friends far from danger. In fact, all our ponies seem powered down. I don't think this would be a story-breaking power necessarily, especially if we had a line about it not being useful in unfamiliar territory. But there are several points where teleporting at least a few feet would have made sense.

Pinkie Pie gets the second-most screentime, although she shares the role of heroic comic relief with Rarity, and to a lesser extent Squabble. Near the end there's a nice callback to her excitement patter from the series' first-season opener. Pinkie is at her best and most useful as she befriends Princess Skystar and the seaponies. Andrea Libman's vocal performance is excellent when she confronts Twilight on the beach. One great point in her writing is that when her heart breaks, she doesn't escalate the fight, nor is she ready to accept an apology. She's at the point where there's nothing she could say that wouldn't come from anger and hurt, except to say, "I just can't talk to you right now." Sometimes that's the best way to handle an argument and let things cool down.

Applejack as usual takes the role of team mom, and she takes the lead both in calling out Twilight on the beach and in suggesting they rejoin her to talk things over. Level-headed as always, she occupies a sort of middle ground between Twilight's skepticism and Rainbow and Pinkie's blind outreach to strangers.

Rarity is here for comic relief, as I mentioned, although her understated generosity toward Capper is what ultimately brings him around. Her betrayed response when he resurfaces is a nice bit of consistency. Dash's rallying of the pirates is one of her finer moments, if only she hadn't gone for the rainboom at the end. Fluttershy doesn't get much to do in terms of plot, but her impromptu counseling session with a Storm Guard is simultaneously awesome and hilarious.

Spike is wonderfully handled here, first for his evidently upgraded fire-breathing, and second for his companionship to Twilight. I am extremely gratified that he stays with her this time when the others leave, after having left her alone once before in similar circumstances. There is a realistic moment of indecision before he makes his choice, but the interruption of his sweet moment with Twilight makes her capture all the more compelling. She misses whatever words of consolation he had to give.

Now on to our new characters. Tempest Shadow has my favorite vocal performance in the movie, especially during her darkly beautiful solo number. I love the casual swagger in her introduction, her powerful weaponry, and the sense of menace she represents. She also has a proclivity for violence we rarely see in the TV series. We can tell by her early use of the word "anybody" that she no longer identifies with ponies, but there are hints throughout the film that her break with the enemy is inevitable. Tempest is almost too delicious a villain to reform, but the same was once said of Discord, and Tempest's origin story makes her more precisely a case of recovery.

I think what really raises Tempest to a higher-tier villain is that the source of her villainy is a reflection of Twilight Sparkle's own issues. Her line, "the best way to survive is all alone," is something Twilight would reject on its face, but deep down, that's how Twi's been feeling throughout the story, that she could save Equestria more easily if her friends didn't keep getting in the way. That wonderful song may do more to help Twilight deal with her control issues than the familiar encouragement of her friends.

The Big Bad of the story, and probably the film's most controversial character, is the Storm King. We're not told what land he comes from, but he seems to already control the territory south of Equestria. I accept the Storm King's take on the goofy villain. Even if it's a kids' movie cliché, Friendship Is Magic hasn't quite done a character like him before, powerful, volatile, and capricious, definitely a threat but impossible to take seriously. His obsession with merchandise and branding appears to be a dig at Hasbro's own industry. And the Storm King's damage to the castle in the moments after the staff powers up illustrates how extraordinarily dangerous it is to give a silly person with no scruples a position of real power.

The Storm Guards have the advantage of looking fearsome; you don't dare attack. But they're set to flight pretty easily if you actually go at them. I like their magic-reflecting shields. I believe it's the first example of anti-magic technology we've seen since Sombra's defenses.

The other enemy loyalist is Grubber. Michael Peña is a great actor; he gave fantastic dramatic performances in End of Watch, World Trade Center, and a number of other films. Based on behind-the-scenes clips, the cast and crew of this movie found him hilarious. But I feel like Grubber is out of place here, due more to the writing than the acting. Part of it's character and part is structure. The best comic relief characters, such as Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai and Bad Ape from War for the Planet of the Apes, manage to be hilarious while still having a serious dramatic undercurrent. We normally get that with Pinkie Pie in the series, as her in-focus episodes often take a serious turn whereas she's typically wacky as part of the team. Structurally, it helps to separate the comic relief from the drama a bit to allow the serious moments to have their proper impact. Many of Shakespeare's plays, for example, have the comic relief characters off to the side with their own scenes, coming in at points where the audience needs a breather.

Here, this little hedgehog guy specializes in moment-breaking humor. Grubber ruins otherwise gripping scenes throughout the movie, killing tension and awesomeness alike with faux-cool remarks about what we're watching. He has the potential to be very funny—at the top of the waterfall, for instance—but I have trouble thinking of a scene from Klugetown onward that wouldn't have been better with him absent.

As the Lando Calrissian of this story, Capper is appropriately captivating, charming, and smooth. The movie does well to pinpoint the moment Capper turns, and interestingly it's before the betrayal comes to a head. In keeping with MLP's themes, it's Rarity's act of generosity that sways him. I don't get the impression of an actual reform, though, just a sense of obligation to these particular ponies and a lack of any love for the Storm King. If he were a recurring character, we might expect the sort of amoral partnership we see with Trixie.

Captain Celaeno and her crew are adventurers and are a joy to watch. Like Capper, it's not so much that they're good at heart, but rather that they're rebels who are presently allied with the ponies. It's not dwelt upon in the film, but I'm picking up an underlying message that friendship in the moment can serve practically as a substitute for actual goodness. That's not altogether wrong; in life you need to work with people who aren't the best, but you still need to get along and work together to get things done.

The long-awaited seaponies finally make an appearance, though with a unique backstory. I adore Princess Skystar. I'll still claim Tempest as the best-presented character, but Skystar is the most fun to watch. Not much more to be said than that, but I'll take every second of her on screen that I can get.

Some will see it as a weakness in the story that Celestia, Luna, and Cadance are once again disabled so that the Mane Six have to deal with the threat and save Equestria. I'll say again I don't believe that's really the Royal Sisters' role anyway, but for this film it's important for one reason: The great anticipation for this movie was that we would see these six ponies (and Spike) having their adventure on the big screen, not guest characters, not supporting characters, and not alternate universe counterparts. One of the things I love the most about this movie is that it's about these main ponies, and whatever it does with the other characters, it gets these girls just right. So I'm not at all bothered that other powerful players are sidelined to make that happen.


Lesson: It's no surprise that the moral of the movie is friendship. But in a remarkably bold way, this story confronts head-on the notion that "the magic of friendship" is a naive sentiment. Does our being the good guys justify playing dirty to win? Shall we do evil that good may come? We're told, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good," but what does that look like? The TV series already has a balanced handling of this issue, but general audiences unconditioned to the maturity of the show may come in skeptical. And I believe the film is smart to let its main character Twilight Sparkle share their cautious perspective.

Twilight comes to the conclusion that the Storm King's threat is just too daunting to risk relying on extending friendship to potential allies she's just met. For a while, she's only being grumpy and missing out on the fun. But when her pragmatic solution is to steal the seaponies' transformation pearl, she fails friendship hard. It's not just her action against the seaponies, or her snapping at Pinkie. She's manipulated and betrayed her friends because she didn't believe in them, assigning them a task she assumed they would fail.

The larger message of this film is what it means to place your faith in something as the basis for your life. If your supreme value is friendship, as Twilight would claim, do you really trust its power to solve the problem at hand? Whatever your worldview, faith is trivial when life is easy. The purpose of principles is to guide us precisely when the path ahead is difficult or uncertain: These are the unchangeable things we know to be true; we follow that and let the outcome handle itself. Our resting our full weight on those principles when the stakes are highest is the proof of whether we actually trust those principles. Otherwise they're just high-minded ideas we like to think about.

When Twilight does blow up, it's a very human moment: Have you ever gotten so upset at someone you just want to say something that will hurt them? If it's someone you care about, that's a recipe for immediate regret. And it's even more heart-breaking because we know that in that single moment, Twilight means it. She really feels she'd be better off without her friends, and they can tell the sincerity of her outburst. She sees her error right away, but it's not something you can take back. For thoughtful viewers, there's an opportunity for reflection there: When I get into disagreements with my friends or family, what restraint do I exercise in my words and the attitudes behind them? What will come of this exchange once the argument's over? There is a thing called fighting fair, and it's a useful concept to explore.

And once again we address the question of whether someone is too easily forgiven. That question applies both to Twilight Sparkle and to Tempest Shadow. (The Storm King's pretty much out of the picture.) It's helpful to remember My Little Pony's purpose: not to deal in the realm of warfare, diplomacy, and criminal law, but personal relationships. Within the context of friendship, what's the alternative to forgiveness? When our friends apologize, are we supposed to punish them? Are we supposed to hold a grudge against them for some specified period of time and then forgive them? Now clearly, if reconciliation is refused or if they continue to act as an enemy, friendship can't function and you'll need to carry on some other way. But if they're obviously repentant, we can't just leave them hanging; to do so would be to say we're better than them and to deny that we're often in need of forgiveness ourselves.


Resonance: The TV series has dazzled us with its ever-improving backgrounds, character designs, lighting, and effects. But this big-screen adaptation is phenomenally beautiful. The long opening pan to the city is an epic attention-getter, set to one of my favorite early 80s post-punk songs, that had me thrilled before anything even happened. Rainbow Dash gets her best rainboom yet. Part of the Mount Aeris sequence seems to draw inspiration from a memorable scene from The Neverending Story. The seaponies' hideout is beautiful, reminiscent of Star Wars' Gungan City. And I'm captivated every time I hear the hypnotically dark Open Up Your Eyes.

Amidst the spectacle of it all, and beyond what I've already mentioned, here are a few moments that stood out to me in the resonance department. Let's get the sad stuff out of the way first: There's the near-shattering of Princess Luna and Twilight's desperate save. Capper receives a gut-punch from Rarity's show of generosity, after he's already arranged to sell her into slavery. Skystar's sadness at the ponies' departure really gets me, speaking of which, I was shocked and upset at Twilight for trying to outright steal the pearl. My anger at her didn't begin to subside until she was aboard Tempest's ship. Pinkie's animation and vocal performance during her fight with Twilight always makes me tear up, as does AJ hugging Pinkie when it appears Twilight has been swept away.

As I've said, most of Grubber's humor doesn't hit, but I get a chuckle out of his "chipped tooth" comment and the trouble it gets him into. Rarity's "bottom's on backwards" line sounds so much like something her voice actor would say, you can tell it was written just for her. Easy-to-miss fun moments: Angel dressed as a bird for some reason, Pinkie's offer of a comb that's obviously seen some use, Pinkie in berserker mode against the Storm Guards, and Shelly and Sheldon's use in battle.

A little more seriously, I feel great satisfaction when Captain Celaeno and her crew rediscover their true calling. Derpy heroically running to save Twilight is a moving moment for her character. I love the physicality of Tempest's action scenes, as well as Spike's mastering of his flame-breath ability. He's not a baby dragon anymore. And Twilight's mind and magical power see thrilling use as she assembles a hot-air balloon for the Mane Six and Spike during their fall.

 

Other Impressions and Final Assessment: First, the structure: I like the fact the group stays together for the most part, and we're not frequently cutting away from them to other parts of the story. That constancy permits us to immerse ourselves in the story and focus on their journey rather than the larger issues of the Storm King's threat. I'm also happy that we start with some unfamiliar/random pegasi to get us used to the new animation models before seeing our usual characters. And that opening "oner" features at least a couple hundred background ponies, some of whom are on screen for less than a second, but which nevertheless had to be built up one by one specifically for the Movie due to the animation engine. The new models themselves seem designed to take maximum advantage of Friendship Is Magic's style of facial expressions.

There are a number of perfect frames in film that I feature in the video version of my review. Just as importantly, the storytelling, while accessible to newcomers and children alike, shows plenty of intelligence and consistency. Here are just a few examples of smart plotting and/or storyboarding in the little things: The Mane Six take advantage of Virko's encounter with Tempest to exit through the window instead of hanging around to watch. Fluttershy flies rather than walk across the rope to board the ship. When the rope gives way, Dash stays with the rope to keep Spike from falling, which gives Twilight the chance to save Pinkie. Rainbow Dash brings up the rear guard on the way to the docks and just after the ponies meet Princess Skystar. Throughout the picture, the creators are thinking about what each character is doing at any given moment, not just the main foreground action. That's common for MLP, but it's something we sometimes fail to appreciate.

There are a number of matters MLP fans are quick to criticize. Firstly, all the non-equine guest characters. I believe they drive home the point that the Mane Six are not in Equestria and magnify Twilight's sense that the places she's in operate by different rules than her home does. For marketing purposes, they may also have brought in viewers who aren't necessarily into ponies per se. Then there's the radio-friendly poppy music, the overly kooky main villain, the temporary breakup of the friendship, the flip-of-a-switch turning of Tempest, and an apparent reset-button ending. All of these are either natural moves for a Movie seeking to draw a wider audience, and also honestly not all that different from what we've seen on well-received episodes of the TV series.

I left my first theatrical viewing with the feeling it was one of the greatest adventures these ponies have had. I do count off some points for the clichéd hip/irreverent kids' movie humor and my concerns with how Grubber is handled. I think Michael Peña really could've made him work if he had better material. And I don't like the fact that we don't get even a hint of how Capper and the pirates escaped from Tempest. All the rest is fantastic, and I'm delighted the events of the movie have been tied into the TV series as of the eighth season premiere. Taking together the wonderful, the good, and the not-as-good, I rank this just below the episode A Royal Problem.

 

My Little Pony: The Movie armor rating: Crystal Armor
Ranked 17th of 175 stories overall

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