At Pop Mythology we regularly receive a wide swath of review solicitations from artists and publishers both big and small. Sometimes as editor, in my desire to cover a diverse range of material, I let my own enthusiasm get the better of me and commit to reviewing a work that doesn’t align with my personal tastes and interests. My Little Pony Equestria Girls – Friendship Games almost became the most recent example of this “reviewer’s remorse” in which, upon receiving a review copy of the DVD, I thought to myself, “What was I thinking?!”
Fortunately, as will sometimes happen, I found myself quite pleasantly surprised by the movie. But first, before I review the work proper, a little background is in order for those less familiar with the Equestria Girls spin-off of the My Little Pony franchise. Get ready for some deep, deep pony geek lore.
Friendship Games is the sequel to My Little Pony: Rainbow Rocks which was a sequel to My Little Pony: Equestria Girls which in itself was a spin-off to the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic animated series which is part of the so-called G4, or fourth generation, of Hasbro’s My Little Pony line of merchandise. The Equestria Girls movie shifted the center of action from the magical world of Equestria, where everyone was a pony, to an alternate world populated by human-like characters. Here, the human counterparts of the central cast of pony heroes, the Mane 6, did all the things that normal human girls do like go to high school and fret about boys, grades and what to wear.
Whereas the first movie, Equestria Girls, centered around the pony version of Twilight Sparkle who crosses over from Equestria into the alternate world and then takes on a human form, Friendship Games reveals that there is also a separate human version of Twilight already existing in the human world apart from the pony version of Twilight from Equestria who took on human form in Equestria Girls. Did I lose you yet? (Yes, I know, this is some heavy, Marvel-esque multiverse stuff, right?).
The preexisting human version of Twilight is a student at Crystal Prep Academy, the snobbish private school that is rival to Canterlot High, where the human versions of the Mane 6 attend. Like her pony counterpart, the human Twilight is studious, ambitious and hopes to get accepted into a prestigious college. Unfortunately, her inherently gentle personality is at odds with the generally arrogant and brash behavior displayed by most of the other Crystal Prep student body including, or especially, Principal Abacus Cinch (a nice play on the name Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird).
The ruthless Principal Cinch, recognizing Twilight’s precocious intellect, pressures her to use her smarts to help ensure Crystal Prep will snag another victory at the upcoming Friendship Games, an event held every four years between the two rival schools and which Crystal Prep has heretofore always won. Meanwhile, over at Canterlot High, the Mane 6 resolve to try to help their school win this year’s Friendship Games for once and break Crystal Prep’s winning streak, but they are puzzled by seemingly random occurrences in which they “pony up” without intent.
Ponying up, for the uninitiated, is when the human Mane 6 transform from ordinary girls into half horse-like super-powered beings with wings, horse ears and tails – a remnant of the first film in which the pony Twilight’s entry into the human world brought magic into it. This is how the Equestria Girls alternate world manages to incorporate the fantasy and magic of the My Little Pony universe into its stories while making the characters less anthropomorphic and more grounded in a relatable high school environment.
This is actually the first time I’ve ever sat down to watch a My Little Pony work from beginning to end, and my lack of familiarity with the MLP universe (hurrah for Wikipedia!), along with the fact that as a 39-year-old man I’m obviously not the target audience for this franchise, made the first half of this movie quite slow-going (prompting me to again wonder, “What was I thinking?!”). However, roughly at around the halfway point I found myself actually enjoying it.
Now, “enjoy” is meant in a relative sense. Watching Friendship Games certainly isn’t like watching the animated version of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. But a reviewer should always consider the target audience when critiquing a work, and I’m pretty certain Friendship Games will engage its target audience on every level it is intended to. Moreover, if I were a parent I would give this movie the parent’s seal of approval on three levels: (1) the content is fully age appropriate, (2) it has a truly wonderful message, and (3) it should be at least mildly entertaining for parents watching along with their children, given that they’re willing to adjust their viewing state of mind to match the movie’s simpler reality.
On DVD, the bright, pastel saturated colors of the Equestria Girls’ world really come through beautifully in Friendship Games, making this an inviting place to visit for an hour-and-a-half, even if you’re not a fan. And given the sharpness and clarity of even just the DVD on my low-end computer display, I can imagine how vibrant the Blu-ray must be when presented on a good TV or monitor. My speakers are also low-end computer speakers but the sound was crisp and clear with lively voice performances by Tara Strong, Rebecca Shoichet, Andrea Libman, Tabitha St. Germain and Ashleigh Ball as Sunset Shimmer and the Mane 6.
Special features include an audio commentary with writer Josh Haber, director Ishi Rudell, consulting director Jayson Thiessen and the executive director of Hasbro. There are also some deleted scenes as well as some animated shorts and sing-alongs for those who dig the soundtrack by William Anderson and Daniel Ingram.
In recent years the My Little Pony franchise has undergone a remarkable resurgence of popularity, particularly with the launch of the G4 line of media and merchandise. One of the most interesting developments has been the formation of adult male fans called “Bronies,” a phenomenon explored in the 2012 documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony and which has induced a lot of snickering as well as all-out mockery from non-fans. There’s even a con devoted to Bronies called, suitably enough, BronyCon. For some of these Bronies perhaps there’s an element of playful kitsch involved. And, yes, as other commentators have observed, to a degree the culture of Bronies intersects with gay culture. But there are just as many heterosexual Bronies as gay ones and it isn’t just a self-conscious show of irony either. There’s genuine appreciation involved and, if you really think about it, it’s not so hard to understand.
First of all, although they are never referred to that way, the characters of My Little Pony are basically superheroes, and as such the same thematic elements characterize MLP tales: bravery, compassion, heroism and triumph over challenges. Secondly, in an increasingly complex world the somewhat black-and-white moral palette of children-oriented entertainment offers a very attractive escape, especially given that the current trend of adult media is to reflect the moral ambiguity of our world – even in fantasy, the genre traditionally considered the definitive escapist genre. Just look at shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. They are quite thoroughly grim and depressing. Is it any wonder that some viewers would be drawn to a simpler, gentler moral universe? Third, we’re in an era when taste is no longer as clearly defined by traditional gender (and age) expectations as they were. Girls and adults now widely read comics, play D&D and go to cons, something once considered strictly adolescent male territory. Why shouldn’t the reverse – guys enjoying entertainment considered “girly” – also be true? You don’t have to join in or understand it; just don’t ridicule it.
Whether you’re a Brony or not, My Little Pony: Friendship Games is a charming little film that contains some wonderful messages about the dangers of over-competitive behavior and unchecked ambition as well as the rewards of traditional, old-fashioned values like kindness, friendship, inclusivity and personal authenticity. If you’re a parent, pick this one up for your next family movie night. Or even if you’re a single adult male, instead of watching Akira for the umpteenth time call your friends over and make it a Brony night.
• 4 stars for kids, families and fans of My Little Pony
• 3 stars for average adult viewers