Now, I want to make something very clear before I proceed: I am not, nor have I ever been, a “brony.” That is, I have never been a fan of the My Little Pony series. Those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll give a little refresher. In 2010, Hasbro released the newest iteration of its My Little Pony franchise with a show on the Hub (now Discovery Family). The show, spearheaded by Lauren Faust, become wildly popular… but not just with its target audience or young girls. A group of older viewers, especially male teens and young adults, joined the fanbase of the show and inflated its status into a cultural phenomenon, complete with their own conventions.
I give this little intro here because My Little Pony: The Movie is very much an extension of the television show. The film is directed by Jayson Thiessen, who directed the show for five years. He’s joined by a team of writers, several of whom are also veterans of the show. Most of the voice actors reprise their roles. In a way, it feels like a capstone to a seven-year-long series, which is both an asset and a liability.
The whole thing starts with our main character, Twilight Sparkle, voiced by Tara Strong. She’s worried because, as the Princess of Friendship, she needs to prepare an upcoming celebration of friendship. Her worries are quickly overshadowed, though, by the arrival of a war fleet of balloons, led by another pony named Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt). She immediately seizes the entire kingdom in the name of the Storm King, a distant warlord voiced by Liev Schreiber. When her three fellow princesses are captured, it’s up to Twilight Sparkle and her friends to flee, with only a cryptic set of instructions, and to seek help.
So, I have to start with what stuck out to me first: the animation is really good. The entire film uses Toon Boom Harmony software, which combines traditional animation with computer capabilities to create a unique effect. Here, the animators wield the software with maximum skill. The camera moves and sweeps around the landscape, and the characters act with smooth motions. Scenes never lay still, there’s always life and movement on the screen. No matter what else I may say about this film, know that it carries excellent production value and excellent craftsmanship. People cared about the making of this movie, and it shows.
The visuals are the movie’s greatest strength. Unfortunately, characterization is its greatest weakness. It all comes down to the sheer volume of characters that the movie tries to stuff into a hundred-minute running time. You have Twilight Sparkle and her five friends, and they all get a turn in each scene to do something to build their character. But outside Twilight, I only managed to see each pony as “the Southern one” or “the quiet one” or “the insane/annoying one.” They come across as a group of five quirky but essentially similar ponies, instead of characters with different value sets. Now, I know their personalities are more developed in the show, and I totally get that, but I don’t watch the show. Even if I had, the movie needs to stand on its own as a work. The film alone just did not fully communicate these characters to me.
Then there are the new characters… and oh boy, are there a lot. We have Taye Diggs voicing a slick cat with a penchant for street smarts and talking himself out of trouble (that doesn’t remind me of Nick Wilde from Zootopia at all); Zoe Saldana voices an avian ship captain who wants to return to her days of piracy; and you have Kristen Chenowith and Uzo Aduba playing princess and queen, respectively, of the hippogriffs (who are now seaponies). Oh, and don’t forget the Storm King himself needs to be there, even if he really only appears in the last ten minutes of the movie.
Every single one of these characters, except the Storm King, goes through an arc in the story. Even Tempest gets time devoted to her backstory, motivation and character development. Add onto that Twilight Sparkle’s own story, and the movie gets overcrowded. Nothing really develops fully. Forgiveness seems doled out on the terms of plot convenience. Motivations also feel flimsy at times. For example, Tempest is evil because one day she broke her horn, which meant her magic worked strangely, which made her two friends not want to play with her, which… drove her on the path to becoming a warlord? I guess for a “My Little Pony” movie, it works.
I haven’t even mentioned the sidekicks. There are two sidekicks: one for the heroes and one for the villains. The hero’s’ sidekick is bearable, but the most I remember him doing is remarking on how he got turned into a pufferfish. The villain’s’ sidekick just makes food jokes throughout the movie, and he just comes across as obnoxious. They both just felt unnecessary in a movie already overfull of characters. I’m not saying any voice actors turned in a poor performance here, far from it. They all sound really good. Instead, nobody really got the time they deserved.
An important note to make is that the movie is a musical, with five songs. The songs themselves are serviceable, although I can only remember one the day after. They are used competently at least, developing character and advancing the plot instead of just padding the run time. The humor is… acceptable. Sadly, most of the best jokes ended up in the trailers, but there are still some good ones here and there. Some just land awkwardly though, like a piece of dialogue where they’re worried about meeting some hippos:
“They could be hungry!”
And wouldn’t you know it, “Hungry Hungry Hippos” is in fact a Hasbro trademark. Ham-fisted references aside (and there are multiple), the movie usually remains energetic and fun enough to keep you from boredom.
My Little Pony: The Movie is exactly what it says on the tin. I feel like if you were going to make a My Little Pony movie, this is probably the best possible outcome you could get. Against a general standard, I’d peg it as decent enough. It didn’t break any barriers, and I don’t see it picking up any new fans. At the same time, it tries to send good messages and never devolves into incompetency, so I can’t get angry at it. I’m sure if you’re a fan of the show, this will give you exactly what you’re looking for. And if a child or friend drags you along, it’s a harmless experience. It really mirrors my thoughts on the series: it’s much better than I’d have expected My Little Pony to be, but still not my cup of tea.