Most television shows don’t get turned into movies, but they do have pilot episodes — and those are always tough. The pilot needs to introduce a show’s world and its characters, but not be so focused on those characters that it skimps on the plot-driven action that will presumably make the viewers come back for more. In retrospect, they look like dumbed-down versions of what will eventually make the show enduring, even in the case of a great television show like My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
If the show does well enough to earn a wide-release movie, as is the case with Jayson Thiessen’s wonderful My Little Pony: The Movie, it faces a similar — if less existential — problem. In short, the movie needs to attract a far wider audience than watches the show. Despite the tired “the only people who watch the show are Bronies LOL” narrative that many media outlets are still indulging because it’s just so hilarious, the majority of My Little Pony fans are young children, and while they are legion, their cheaper ticket prices and lack of personal agency don’t do a film’s grosses any favors. But My Little Pony: The Movie has plenty to offer viewers of all ages, it does not require prior familiarity with Friendship Is Magic, and it’s quite smart.
Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) is in the Equestrian capital of Canterlot overseeing preparations for the first annual Friendship Festival, to culminate with a performance by pop star Songbird Serenade (Sia). The proceedings are disrupted by Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a renegade unicorn on a mission from the Storm King (Liev Schreiber) to steal the magic from the Alicorn Princesses: Celestia (Nicole Oliver), Luna (Tabitha St. Germain), Cadance (Britt McKillip), and Twilight herself.
Narrowly escaping, Princess Twilight and her friends Rarity (St. Germain), Applejack and Rainbow Dash (both Ashleigh Ball), Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy (both Andrea Libman), and young dragon Spike (Cathy Weaseluck) venture outside the already not-always-safe confines of Equestria in search of allies, with Tempest and her sidekick Grubber (Michael Peña) in pursuit. Along the way, our heroes meet the impossibly suave but untrustworthy cat Capper (Taye Diggs), a crew of pirate birds conscripted by the Storm King and led by Captain Celaeno (Zoe Saldana), and the undersea ponies Princess Skystar (Kristin Chenoweth) and Queen Novo (Uzo Aduba), who may hold the key to retaking Equestria. (I know alt-right Bronies exist because they tweet at me, and while I haven’t checked, I’d wager they’re unhappy about the presence of so many people of color in the cast.)
Sending the characters into heretofore unseen lands beyond Equestria allows the movie to escape the snare Friendship Is Magic has been caught in, saddled as it is with seven seasons of continuity baggage as well as that small but vocal portion of the viewership who demands to see the things they want to see on a regular basis. My Little Pony: The Movie wisely dispenses with the fanservice in the first 10 minutes: Hey, there’s Trixie! And the Cutie Mark Crusaders! Photo Finish! Starlight Glimmer, if you don’t blink! And the gray mare that the 6-year-old sitting behind me at the press screening correctly referred to as Muffins, for that is in fact the character’s name! Like a first-reel Hitchcock cameo, getting the “Here are the characters you will clap at to show you recognize them!” obligation out of the way allows the film to get down to business.
Though it has broad similarities to the Season 4 finale “Twilight’s Kingdom, Parts 1 & 2” — and after more than 150 episodes, it would be impossible to not hit on some familiar story beats — My Little Pony: The Movie is not just a 99-minute episode of Friendship Is Magic. It’s a visual spectacle on a scale not possible for the television show, and worthy of repeat viewings to soak it all in. Art director Rebecca Dart and her team, also responsible for excellent if far less expensive work in the spinoff films My Little Pony: Equestria Girls — Rainbow Rocks and especially My Little Pony: Equestria Girls — Friendship Games, have rebuilt the characters from the ground up. Since the ponies’ already-ginormous eyes are now even bigger and more soulful, the easy comparison is Disney, but the look and feel of My Little Pony: The Movie better evoke the work of Don Bluth circa 1982’s The Secret of NIMH.
Among the problems with modern blockbuster filmmaking is that the stakes have to be world-shattering. (By comparison, the plot of NIMH revolved around moving a pneumonia-stricken mouse out of the way of a tractor.) Friendship Is Magic’s best episodes tend to be smaller, character-driven pieces, and the Equestria Girls films have excelled at making the internal conflicts just as important the external, but a big-budget My Little Pony movie in 2017 can’t resemble a bottle episode like “Look Before You Sleep,” or even the larger-scale but still intensely personal “The Best Night Ever.”
This is not to say that My Little Pony: The Movie is devoid of character development. Things get dark late in the second act, after Princess Twilight makes a very bad decision, as she is wont to do under pressure, and Pinkie Pie emerges as the story’s co-lead and moral compass. (Srsly tho, Pinkie!) The picture lets these deep character moments breathe, suggesting the producers have learned a lot about longform storytelling from working on Rainbow Rocks and Friendship Games.
Not everypony contributes equally to the story; though Applejack and Fluttershy don’t get much to do, an act of generosity by Rarity gets them out of a jam while Rainbow Dash’s mindless showing off gets them into deeper trouble, something that stands to reason considering Rarity is the best and Rainbow is the worst. Spike is mostly weaponized, but he also gets one of the biggest laughs.
Though the movie earns its PG rating, it always errs on the side of fun rather than heaviness for its own sake. (Put another way, it’s The Force Awakens and not Rogue One, praise Celestia.) The MPAA says the PG is for “mild action,” and it’s surprising they didn’t use their vague standby “thematic elements,” as this is arguably the only My Little Pony story in the modern era other than Friendship Games to directly acknowledge the concept of death, even turning it into a running joke.
Unlikely to get the respect it deserves due to the words “My Little Pony” remaining fairly toxic — so much so that the book Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016 remains unread by the author’s closest friends and even her mother — the picture also joins Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories as one of the few exceptions to Roger Ebert’s maxim that no good movie has ever featured a hot-air balloon. My Little Pony: The Movie features a hot-air balloon, and it’s damn good.
My Little Pony: The Movie opens Friday, Oct. 6.