New on Video: Magic and Melancholia in My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Friendship Games

Last October, when I was preparing an article about the feature film My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks for a nerd-culture blog that I don’t contribute to anymore because horribleness of its readership, Variety announced that Hasbro Studios had greenlit a My Little Pony feature film to be released in 2017. The nerd-culture blog editor asked if I thought we should mention that in my Rainbow Rocks piece, and I said that I didn’t consider it relevant. After all, Hasbro already had been releasing My Little Pony feature films, such as the one I was writing about that moment. I mean, a-doy, srsly. And the third film, Ishi Rudell and Jayson Thiessen's My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Friendship Games, is has been released in a Blu-ray / DVD combo this week by Shout! Factory.

The difference is that the dumbed-down 2017 film will be intended for a mass audience along the lines of Hasbro’s horrible Transformers movies, and in any event, that’s about as much respect as the Equestria Girls films get from anyone on the internet who isn’t me. I had mixed feelings about the first film, released in 2013 and simply titled My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, but I put My Little Pony: Equestria Girls  Rainbow Rocks at #4 on my Village Voice Film Critics’ Poll ballot without irony or reservation, because it really was my fourth favorite film of the year after God Help the Girl, Snowpiercer, and It Felt Like Love. I didn’t even have the good sense to include Boyhood in my Top 10 like all the respectable critics did, and yet the local film critics’ guild declined my request for membership shortly thereafter for some mysterious reason! Just kidding, I know exactly why they turned me down. (They assured me that it was the result of a secret ballot, “and implies no criticism or judgment of your professional qualifications.” Whew! That’s a relief.)

Based on my unbridled fondness for the Rainbow Rocks, I was prepared to be let down by Friendship Games. Instead, it’s damn good, continuing to fulfill the promise first shown by Rocks.

It’s not entirely fair of me call the 2017 Pony film “dumbed-down,” since of course I haven’t seen it. All I know about the story is how Hasbro summarized it in a press release this past August: “a new dark force threatens Ponyville, and the [main characters] embark on an unforgettable journey beyond Equestria where they meet new friends and exciting challenges on a quest to use the magic of friendship and save their home.” That sounds quite a lot like the series pilot, and it’s clearly intended to appeal to people who have no previous knowledge of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic — and that’s all fine, but it also sets it apart from the Equestria Girls films, which are for people who’ve been following along.

Not that they all appreciate it; I am not a Brony and I have very little interaction with the organized fandom, but my observation has been that most Bronies haaaaaate the Equestria Girls series. And that sort of narrow focus might also account for why Friendship Games had its premiere on the Discovery Family channel last month, and didn’t receive the even the meager theatrical release afforded to the first two films.  Did I at least do my part and attend the brief July 2013 and September 2014 runs of Equestria Girls and Rainbow Rocks at the Balboa? Oh my yes. True story about the 10 p.m. screening of Rainbow Rocks last September: it was largely attended by families. I’ve never seen so many kids out past their bedtime before.

The main action of the Equestria Girls films take place in an alternate dimension where all the pony characters have biped counterparts attending Canterlot High School. Except for ostensible Friendship Is Magic protagonist Twilight Sparkle, the bipeds are not the ponies transformed into humans, but rather mirror-species images of themselves. The first film, the weakest of the bunch, involved Twilight Sparkle traveling from the pony realm of Equestria to the biped world (and becoming a biped herself in the process) to stop the renegade pony Sunset Shimmer (the one with the delicious bacon-colored hair), who intends to use Equestrian magic to conquer our world, starting with Canterlot High. Twilight defeats Sunset with the help of the biped equivalent of her friends from Equestria — colloquially referred to as the Mane Six — and Rainbow Rocks concerns a now-reformed Sunset Shimmer, the biped Mane Six, and a returning Twilight Sparkle battling other Equestrians who intend to take over using the leftover Equestrian magic from Twilight’s first visit.

There’s a lot more going on that, and at its best Rainbow Rocks is a character study of both Twilight and Sunset, and the burdens they each carry: Twilight because she was recently made a Princess in Equestria and feels enormous pressure to do the right thing, and Sunset because nobody will let her forget her evil past.

Friendship Games picks up from a reveal at the end of Rainbow Rocks, answering an unspoken question from the first two films: where is the biped world’s Twilight Sparkle, anyway? She’s revealed to be a student at Canterlot High’s rival school Crystal Prep, where she's been studying the strange energy emanating from Canterlot High. A recluse much like her pony counterpart was at the beginning of the television series, Biped Twilight has no idea that what she's detecting is leftover Equestrian magic, since she doesn’t know that a) Equestria is a place, or b) that magic is real. In Friendship Is Magic, magic tends to be treated more like energy, subject to its own equivalent of the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Meanwhile, Sunset Shimmer has been trying to figure out why that magic is still around, and just how it works in this biped world; increasing her anxiety, she’s been sending messages to Princess Twilight Sparkle in Equestria asking for help, but that Twilight hasn’t been responding. It’s a terrific subversion of the denouement of Rainbow Rocks, in which Princess Twilight promised to return to the biped world if called, and now she's apparently ignoring those calls.

Worlds collide metaphorically and almost literally when the Friendship Games competition brings a team of students from Crystal Prep to Canterlot High, including the native /naïve Twilight Sparkle, and once again both Sunset and Biped Twilight have to confront their limitations, limitations that Biped Twilight doesn’t even realize she has.

By the way, the Friendship Games were once a real thing; they were held in 1984 by Eastern European nations who boycotted that year’s Olympics.

For that matter, the Friendship Games had a logo which wouldn’t have been out of place in the Pony universe(s), either.

Though they’re all telling a single story (with parts filled in by prequel shorts), each Equestria Girls film has its own tone, especially in the music. The opening theme to Rainbow Rocks, for example, completely dropped the iconic “My Little Pony” melody…

…and Friendship Games’s theme has a Broadway feel, complete with a minute-long overture.

The main score also has more of a minimalist techno feel compared to the more acoustic mood of the previous films, befitting this film's driving mystery. Also, I’m biased because fashion designer Rarity is my favorite character, but she has the best scoff.

Rarity may be both the best pony and the best biped, and there’s no good reason for her not to be on the DVD cover — her Cutie Mark is even covered up in the logo! — but Sunset Shimmer is the emotional core of these films. Rainbow Rocks was ultimately about her struggling for redemption, and while she achieved it to an extent at the end of that film, her sins keep catching up with her. Everything bad that’s happened to Canterlot High since the first film has been because of her, and all hell is now breaking loose in Friendship Games because Biped Twilight is unintentionally stirring up the magic that Sunset can’t control.

The anger that she unleashes on Twilight is the anger that she still feels toward herself, and probably always will. In Friendship Is Magic, Equestria Girls, and our world, characters are defined by their pain and self-doubt, and actions are never without consequence.

All three Equestria Girls films are also being released in a box set. Unfortunately, it only includes them on DVD, and Rainbow Rocks and Friendship Games really do demand to be seen on Blu-ray, plus the DVDs don't include subtitles, which is always a diss to viewers with lousy hearing such as myself. On the other hand, the box set does have one of those shifty-changey covers (which I can't embed here because our system can't handle embedded Vines, go figure).

Y’know, I’m sure the 2017, non-Equestria Girls movie will be fine, even if it’ll give such august institutions as Time (as well as more disreputable institutions such as our own) yet another opportunity to snicker about Bronies. The Bronies themselves may end up loving that new movie — and I sincerely hope I do, too — but my heart will remain with the Equestria Girls series.

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