Thursday 16 November 2017

My Little Pony: The Movie (2017) - Movie Review

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a serious connection to all things associated with Cartoon Network, in particular growing up on the legendary Cartoon Cartoons block. From the pre-pubescent spy antics of Codename: Kids Next Door, to the superpowered comedy of the Powerpuff Girls, to the mad science capering of Dexter’s Laboratory, even the surprisingly emotional and poignant messages of Whatever Happened To Robot Jones?; these shows and others helped shape a lot of how I approach and appreciate media, and likely explains why I still hold a lot of respect for what children-centric entertainment is capable of.
Where am I going with all this and what does it have to do with anything? Well, considering my own liking for cartoons, including several that aren’t exactly aiming for my demographic, I have never really understood the disdain for bronies. And this isn’t even with hindsight; even at the height of its backlash, the seeming hatred for these people never made sense to me. Hell, I even joined in out of sheer social necessity, but it was always me playing to the crowd; even as the words “screw you, bronies” came out of my mouth, I still didn’t get the rationale of that statement.

With all that in mind, when today’s film was announced, I knew that I’d have to give my two cents on this whole thing before stepping into the realms that traditional masculinity seems to hate with a passion. Sure, I’m not all that familiar with the My Little Pony franchise myself, but I’ve watched a couple episodes of Friendship Is Magic and it’s honestly pretty good. Let’s get into this thing and see if there is something to it beyond “it’s based on a girly show”.

The plot: In the land of Equestria, ponies Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball), Applejack (Ashleigh Ball again), Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman), Fluttershy (Andrea Libman again) and Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) are preparing for the first Friendship Festival. However, the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a unicorn working for the Storm King (Liev Schreiber) and seeking to claim to land for the King. It’s up to the Mane 6 (get your groans out now because the puns are only going to get worse) to save the day.

The voices for the Mane 6 are all solid, and it sure is cool hearing Tara Strong, the voice behind a lot of animated favourites, in a big-screen production. Especially when, even as someone with only surface experience with the series, Strong still rings true through the character. Blunt taps into her history with singing to bring the jaded unicorn Tempest to life, selling the film’s main villain song brilliantly while also doing a great service to this rather tragic character. Peña as her sidekick, on the other hand? Not so much. He exists solely to crack jokes, most of which are ad-libbed on his part, and they are quite lame quips.
Taye Diggs as the crafty Capper fills out his role well, Zoe Saldana as a pirate captain is very engaging, Kristin Chenoweth as Princess Skystar gives Pinkie Pie a run for her money in being abrasively chipper, Liev Schreiber as The Storm King ends up playing second fiddle to his own subordinate, given how he pales in comparison to Tempest, and Sia is here presumably because any film nowadays aimed at girls with a penchant for music (e.g. Pitch Perfect 2),  needs to have her involved, apparently.

And speaking of music, the soundtrack here is a seriously mixed bag. The music itself is fine, with Daniel Ingram and co. providing some very lively and catchy sounds to back the words, but the words themselves are really one-track. It’s hardly surprising that a series with the subtitle “Friendship Is Magic” would have a film with this many songs about friendship in its many forms, but that kind of cohesion results in a fair bit of monotony. The opening song, aside from reintroducing the main cast, kept giving me flashbacks to “We Can Do Anything” from the Garbage Pail Kids Movie in how plain its message is of friends working together. Sia’s contribution Rainbow sticks to Sia’s wheelhouse of emotional balladry, but given how emotional impact is basically her one and only tool as a musician, a film that predominantly uses the music to impose message isn’t exactly an ideal fit for her. It sounds pretty and does little else, honestly.
That said, there are really good musical moments in here, like Tempest’s aforementioned villain song Open Your Eyes and Capper’s number I’m The Friend You Need, both taking the main idea of friendship down some more cynical directions. Also, as cheesy as it is, Time To Be Awesome being used to get the pirates back into form honestly lives up to its title; pirates teaming up with magical creatures to fight evil just makes too much Rule Of Cool sense for me to argue with.

One of the main reasons why I’m still quite partial to media supposedly made just for kids, aside from a bunch of it being a lot smarter than most people give them credit for, is that this demographic is really the only group right now getting decent fantasy stories nowadays. Everyone else is going after science fiction stories, and the few instances we do get of fantasy stories for older audiences are usually tied up in comic book cinematic universes; as I said not that long ago, a bit of variety in that regard would be helpful.
And from what I see here, this provides exactly that. A fantasy adventure about magically-gifted heroes fighting an evil conquering empire; sounds pretty good to me. As we see the Mane 6 journey to save their kingdom, meeting pirates, mermaid ponies, scavengers and thieves along the way, it has the kind of pacing that makes for what feels like an epic adventure. Going beyond the boundaries of Equestria fills out the film’s world, and even if I’m a little disappointed that we don’t get to meet the queen of the hippos, the characters and locales we do see make this feel like a real breathing world that the characters inhabit. Again, given how fantasy films nowadays usually do the bare minimum in terms of world-building, with some not even doing that much, this is much appreciated.

The writing here, when it sticks to what it’s good at, does what I understand to be the series’ approach to story: Imparting messages on its audience. As much as I’m a bit meh on some of the songs, they all work as far as looking at the importance of making allies and trusting one another. Hell, One Small Thing as a song highlights how seemingly small acts of kindness can lead to something greater. That's a level of maturity and salience that is pretty representative of the modern kids animation scene. It has its place, and even if its main intent is definitely aimed at younger audiences, it’s a hell of a lot more mature than some of the “adult” message films I’ve seen this year (looking at you, The Shit Shack).
But that’s all on the dramatic and character-driven side; the comedy is far less effective. Friendship Is Magic made its mark, in part, through a highly knowledgeable understanding of pop culture. I mean, this is the same show that has a character named Doctor Whooves. This film definitely has that same willingness to reference, but the references made here are… embarrassing, frankly. I appreciate the writing going beyond just what is popular now for its references, but when you’re at the point of referencing “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”, it’s near-impossible not to sound dated. Add to that Grubber’s poor ab-libs and how Pinkie Pie seems to be the only character capable of being annoying and funny, and the comedy side of things isn’t all that impressive. Shame, really, since the rest of it is legitimately quite good.

All in all, even as someone who doesn’t have that much history with the series, this is a pretty good kids film. The acting is very good, with Emily Blunt genuinely impressing as our focal villain, the animation brings that familiar Flash-created sheen and bulks it up for the big screen, the music is hit and miss but all of it has something to contribute to the story, and the story itself is high fantasy joy with plenty of nice sentiments for the little ones to latch onto. Actually, given how divided the world at large is nowadays, some of these sentiments might do the adults in the crowd some good as well.

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