I recently completed the final proofing and indexing of my scholarly nonfiction book Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016, due to be published next spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it resulted in a torrent of flames that makes the response to my defense of Jem and the Holograms last year — and probably the essay I’m writing about the Ghostbusters backlash for next month’s “Year in Film” issue — look like a few angry emoticons. So as I enjoy my final months of peace and quiet before SF DocFest’s much dumber cousin SC DoxFest is launched by people who disagree with my opinions about our mutual favorite children’s cartoon franchise, I’m glad that My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Legend of Everfree has been released by Shout! Factory in all the ways movies are released these days.
With one notable exception, that is.
Legend of Everfree is the fourth in the film series spun off from the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic television show, which is set in an alternate dimension in which Magic‘s pony characters have biped counterparts attending Canterlot High. The movies began with the middling-to-good My Little Pony: Equestria Girls in 2013, and found their voice with 2014’s My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks (still the high-water mark of the Pony franchise) and 2015’s My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Friendship Games.
The Equestria Girls mythology is getting Marvel-dense: the pony Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) moved between the dimensions in Girls and Rocks, transforming from a pony into a human and back again, though she was relegated to a cameo in Games and doesn’t appear at all in Everfree. Meanwhile, a character introduced in Rocks‘ post-credits stinger takes center stage in Games and Everfree: the Twilight Sparkle native to the biped world, henceforth referred to as “Sci-Twi” for clarity’s sake. Of all the characters in Everfree, only former villain Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) was born a pony and crossed over to the human world, which she did well before the events of Magic. If you’re confused, please see the accompanying flowchart. (Note: Flowchart may not be available in all SF Weekly editions.)
Plot-wise, the Canterlot High students are spending a week at the soon-to-be shuttered Camp Everfree, where they hope for a respite from the chaos caused by Equestrian magic in the first three films — a hope that gets dashed when they find themselves developing powers, possibly linked to the legend of Gaia Everfree, an ancient spirit who once held domain over the forest.
From the day they were announced in 2013, the Equestria Girls films have been criticized as venal Monster High ripoffs — a backlash I deconstruct in excruciating detail in Ponyville Confidential — but I find them to be thoughtful, character-driven stories in which nothing is taken for granted, and actions always have consequences. Girls picked up where Magic‘s third season finale left off, as Twilight struggled with her recent ascension to winged Princesshood. Rocks dealt with the lingering impact of the Equestrian magic which Sunset brought to the human world with nefarious intent, and her struggle for redemption informs much of Rocks and Games. Sci-Twi’s curiosity and ignorance about that magic in Games results in her becoming a demon much like Sunset had in Girls — and in Everfree, Sci-Twi is in the midst a crisis worthy of Jung, terrified that her dark side will return if she uses any magic at all. While the characters have all grown and changed throughout the films, Everfree‘s most interesting character work is in how the troubled Sci-Twi bears no resemblance to her pony-turned-human doppelganger Twilight Sparkle other than in basic appearance. Her personal style and body language are entirely different.
Legend of Everfree lacks the ticking-clock urgency of the tightly wound Rocks and Games, and the stakes never feel quite as high, primarily because our characters aren’t personally invested in the motivations of eventual villain Gloriosa Daisy (Enid Raye Adams). The result is more of a hang-out film than the first three, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and Everfree can’t be accused of treading the same old ground. Our characters go through four sets of new clothes, and other than a brief glimpse of Canterlot High in the final shots, the picture takes place in new locations; the producers didn’t just repurpose Magic‘s namesake Everfree Forest, instead creating a new and necessarily more realistic environment for a recognizable human world.
For better or worse, Everfree also adopts a far more quotidian approach its storytelling, making no attempt to match the stylishness of the previous films. There are no mini-masterpieces of montage like Rocks‘ “Under Our Spell” or Games‘ “ACADECA,” and the palette is much brighter, down to the final confrontation with Gloriosa-as-Gaia taking place in broad daylight, lacking even the spooky dark clouds of the previous finales.
Unfortunately, it’s also the first of the films to pad out its 72-minute running time, as the story is all but wrapped up by the hour mark. But even within the filler of those last 10 minutes, there’s a major character moment for Sci-Twi which would be all but unthinkable for Magic‘s Twilight Sparkle. The ability to go in directions the television show cannot is one of the great strengths of the Equestria Girls films. The way Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) talks with her five-fingered hands when she says the words “sooner rather than later” and “middle of the woods” slays me every time. It’s something that’s not physically possible for her four-legged counterpart, and the kind of detail that makes even the slightest of these films worthwhile.
I’m not privy to Hasbro Studios’ operating budget, nor have I listened to the Blu-ray commentary yet or otherwise investigated the film’s production history — and after spending much of the last two years immersed in My Little Pony history, it’s kinda nice to not know — but Everfree feels the most like a straight-to-video movie of the four, and I believe this is the first of the films to be made with the knowledge that it would not play in theaters. The initial Games announcement said it would receive a theatrical release in fall 2015, but the distributor put its “Event Cinema” programming on hiatus due to a corporate merger, while Hasbro’s initial Everfree announcement merely described it as being “set to debut this fall.” (That much I know because it was part of my book research — and if I may brag, Ponyville Confidential‘s bibliography is goddamn epic.) Everfree premiered on Netflix, it didn’t have any prequel shorts like Rocks and Games, and wasn’t even afforded the single premiere screening that Games enjoyed in 2015.
The whole operation seems to have been scaled back, and no matter how well Everfree does in streaming and physical sales, the chances of the next Equestria Girls film playing in theaters are slim to none, since a big-budget movie featuring the Friendship Is Magic characters will be receiving a wide theatrical release in October 2017. I’m sure that all-equine film will be fine, but it would be a shame if this was the last we heard from the bipeds — and though My Little Pony: Equestria Girls — Legend of Everfree isn’t the best place to start for newcomers to this universe, you could do worse over this long holiday weekend than spending an afternoon marathoning all four Equestria Girls movies.