Tag Archives: Friendship Is Magic

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks

It lacks the surprise “this actually works!” factor of the original, but My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks is otherwise a better film in every respect.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

mlp1I really like the first Equestria Girls.  I liked it enough to actually put it on my Top 10 Films of 2013 list in the #10 slot with 47 Ronin (which is always reserved for the nicest surprise I’ve had all film-going year).  I will, however, admit a fair bit of that liking came from the sheer surprise that it actually worked at all.  As a big fan of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, I entered very much worried that the film was just going to be a cash-in, as Hasbro threw the well-respected Friendship Is Magic licence under the bus in search of that sweet sweet Monster High money.  To find the film worked at all, let alone as well as it did, was very much a nice surprise.  It’s not brilliant, it’s too fast-paced and lacks material for much of its cast, but it is very fun and very good.

Rainbow Rocks, which arrives just over a year after the original film, is therefore at the disadvantage of not having the “holy crap, this actually works” card to fall back on for any of its flaws.  Like it or not, the film now has to stand on its own merits.  That’s pretty much the only disadvantage that the film has, though, as Rainbow Rocks is a better film than Equestria Girls in almost every single possible way.  In fact, it’s way more than that.  It’s one of the best animated films of the whole year.  Admittedly, that doesn’t sound like much, what with 2014 being a rather miserable year for animation, but it’s still worthy of the level of respect that such a statement usually holds.

We’re a while removed from the first Equestria Girls, and Canterlot High is getting ready for its first ever musical showcase, which the remaining human members of the Mane Six – Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball), Applejack (also Ashleigh Ball), Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman), Fluttershy (also Andrea Libman) and Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) – have started a band to perform in.  Filling in the Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) shaped hole in the group is the recently reformed Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) who is finding it hard to integrate into the group and find acceptance at school after the whole “being evil” thing.  But all is not well, for the school has been infiltrated by three Sirens that were banished from Equestria – now taking the human forms of their leader Adagio Dazzle (Kazumi Evans), the airheaded Sonata Dusk (Marÿke Hendrikse), and the permanently irritated Aria Blaze (Diana Kaarina) – who gain power by planting discord and anger in others through their singing.  Realising that the Sirens are up to something, our heroes send a message to Equestria to try and get Twilight to come and help.

One may notice that that summary contained a hefty lack of Twilight Sparkle, a key segment of the character dynamics and the main protagonist of the first film.  That’s actually one of Rainbow Rocks’ many strokes of genius.  Twilight is not the main character, this time.  In fact, she doesn’t even enter the film until about the halfway mark, and even then she’s pushed a bit more to the back than before.  The film instead focuses more on the rest of the main ensemble, the point being to show how these human versions of the pony cast interact with each other as friends without Twilight.  It gives them more of a spotlight, lets the viewer see them as full-on characters, and allows one to relate and love them on levels that aren’t tied to residual love for their pony incarnations, which is why the emotional stakes of the film end up carrying genuine weight this time around.

The other reason for the film’s sliding of Twilight into the “co-lead” position is the film’s best choice: Sunset Shimmer is our main protagonist.  That’s not to say that the rest of the ensemble get left out, on the contrary, but most of the film is viewed from her perspective and its most prominent, not to mention best, plotline revolves around her trying to atone for her many past sins and trying to gain acceptance from other people.  To put it simply; anybody who found, like I did, the main cast’s sudden forgiveness of her at the end of the first film to be extremely unearned for a character who, up until that point, had shown no reason for sympathy or forgiveness should find this more than enough of a course correct.

It, like the best moments of the show it’s spun-off from, taps into real insecurities and worries and feeds them through a character who is very easy to like.  Sunset is somebody who is desperately trying and wanting to change, wanting to become a good person who helps her friends and does the right thing, but she can’t escape her past because nobody will let her forget it.  Even her new and only friends keep inadvertently bringing it up regularly enough for her to be used to it.  Her attempts to fit in, to gather up the courage to help out, and to completely believe that she really is capable of change are extremely well handled, able to be played for big laughs and quiet emotional nuance in equal measure, and it is the best part of the film.  Credit needs to be given to both Meghan McCarthy’s excellent script and Rebecca Shoichet’s brilliant vocal work; they’ve turned a mediocre character who had pretty much no redeeming qualities into somebody I’d like to see more of whenever possible.

Speaking of that script, this is a far better paced film than the first Equestria Girls was.  Whilst that film raced through plot point after plot point, whilst still finding time to work in a whole bunch of character beats to keep it from feeling like a soulless exercise in plot, Rainbow Rocks has much less plot than the first one.  Much of it was actually summarised in that paragraph a while back, and the film is structured in such a way that we get far more time with the cast of characters to make its emotional beats register that much more.  The first film had to tell a story and set-up the world, but the second one is able to relax and breathe more, so it feels like I’ve been able to immerse myself more in Equestria Girls’ dimension than I did the first time.  Nothing is rushed, nothing feels forced excepting one bit in the finale; it all feels natural.

On that note, the humour is less pronounced this time.  Don’t get me wrong, it is still a very funny movie, it’s just that the jokes are much lower-key.  There’s a lack of giant laughs, although they do exist – one is a brilliant self-acknowledgement of how conflicts in the series tend to resolve without it devaluing said thing, another involves the appearance of one of Season 4 of the original show’s best one-shot characters – but the joke ratio is still high, coming from character traits and certain turns of phrase rather than extended sequences of Twilight trying to act like a person.  It fits, the laughs complimenting on-screen events instead of overpowering them.

Animation is great, considering the limitations of Flash.  Due to the restrictive nature of the technology, one shouldn’t expect anything close to the levels of How To Train Your Dragon 2 or The Book Of Life but it’s still very good regardless; director Jayson Thiessen and the folks over at DHX really mastering this form and pushing it to its apparent limits.  Character designs are distinctive without being off-putting, specifically the anthropomorphic features that the main cast take on at points are slightly less pronounced and therefore less awkward than before, whilst the colour scheme is bright and breezy, to a degree that can come across as excessive, but tempers its primary tendencies with good deployment of shades to add an actual spectrum and variety to proceedings.

Camerawork and perspectives are vastly improved, too; there are multiple instances of dollying, focus-shifting and perspective switching – manipulating the camera in a two-dimensional plane in a way that gives off the illusion of three-dimensions – that come off much smoother than they have in many prior instalments of both the show and the last film.  There’s also some great board work going on here, too; sequences that are made thanks to well designed and laid out shots and images.  Most specifically, there’s a musical montage late in the film of the Battle Of The Bands competition that visualises the various clashes like an actual battle with real kinetic energy that makes the sequence a lot of fun.  Also it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim and I love Scott Pilgrim.

Related: the songs, penned primarily as always by Daniel Ingram, are really darn good.  There’s a lack of anything that I’m still humming about 24 hours removed from being exposed to it, like the show’s best numbers ended up doing to me many times, but they also fulfil the more important job of fitting the film.  They hop between genres and moods and tones – the Sirens mostly sing incredibly well-harmonised goth pop, our main cast get earnest but likeable pop rock, whilst The Great And Powerful Trixie performs a brilliantly naff early-00s electropop number – but they always feel consistent and unified whilst still having their own identity.  The final battle ends up incorporating elements of heavy metal, whilst Snips & Snails have to perform an incredibly awkward rap number earlier on, yet they don’t feel out-of-place or blatantly calling out to the older segments of the audience.  They fit and they work, even if the lyrics do sometimes cross the line from “earnestly rubbish” to “just plain rubbish”.

The only real knock I have against Rainbow Rocks, and by which I mean the only part that isn’t improved from the first film in any way, is with regards to the character of Flash Sentry, the teenage boy whom Twilight has a reciprocated but never openly stated crush on.  He’s in the film for about the same amount of time as he was in the first one, but he’s still pointless to overall proceedings.  He mainly seems to exist so that the audience has somebody to worry about when the film needs to show the effects of the hostility that the Sirens bring out in people.  So he spends most of the film being a paper-thin jerk, in stark contrast to Equestria Girls where spent most of that film being a paper-thin pretty boy.  He only seems to be here because nobody was confident enough to admit the character didn’t work and cut him, with his negative characterisation being a way to turn into the skid of nobody liking him.  In a film where Sunset Shimmer was able to be totally redeemed as a character in the space of 75 minutes, Flash sticks out like a sore thumb.

Forget about Flash Sentry, though (heaven knows the film does for long stretches), and My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks is an unqualified triumph.  A major leap forward in nearly every respect, this is what a sequel should be: using a previously established world and characters to tell a new story with character development that actually sticks, a story and set of character arcs that aren’t just rehashing the beats of the original and improving upon their problems to create a film that stands head and shoulders above its predecessor.  Admittedly, if you’re not already on board the super-earnest and occasionally-proudly-cheesy My Little Pony bandwagon, this may not be the movie to convince you, even if it does have a literal music battle for a finale (that is AWESOME).  But if you found yourself disappointed with the first Equestria Girls, then you should give Rainbow Rocks a shot as I guarantee you that you will find it a major leap forward comparatively.

Considering how this series first looked to be a cynical heartless cash-grab driven purely by the need to sell toys, Equestria Girls has turned into quite the fantastic little series.  See, folks!  Heart-on-sleeve sincerity wins out, after all!  Roll on the inevitable third instalment in 12 months’ time!

Callum Petch has a nagging fear someone else is pulling at the strings.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Am I Ruining Cartoons?

Callum Petch believes that he may be part of the problem and for that he is not sorry.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

gravity fallsI am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek.

This epiphany hit me the other day when I read an article on The AV Club about the official Season 5 renewal for the hit animated kids’ show (and one of my personal favourites on the air today) My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.  It was a thought that had been rolling around in my brain for a while, anyway, the side effect of being really friggin’ anxious about everything you ever do because trying to live like a good human being is really hard in this crapsack of a world, as well as a theory I had been working on a bit, but that article made it clear.  In fact, I’ll just quote the exact sentence that led me to this realisation.

“The 26-episode order will push the series over the milestone 100-episode mark, a remarkable achievement for a show primarily aimed at teaching young girls self-confidence, the importance of friendship, and the fact that anything that’s special for them will eventually be co-opted and stolen by dudes.”

The Brony fanbase, adult fans of the show (typically depicted as male as that apparently makes for a much more interesting narrative when reporting on them), have become inexorably tied to the show and the discussion surrounding it.  If you haven’t even heard of the show it’s based on but you spend some time on the Internet, you’ve still probably heard of the concept of Bronies.  It’s inescapable, to an extent that I honestly fear that, once the show is done and wrapped, everyone has moved on to other things and the passage of time sends the show fading into memory, its legacy won’t be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was a great show that broke down gender stereotypes thanks to strong writing and characterisation.”  Instead, I’m incredibly worried that its legacy will be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was the show that gave the world Bronies.”  That’s it or, at the very least, the show will get a passing mention in maybe paragraph 12.  Neither outcome is one I particularly desire.

I don’t consider myself a Brony but I do consider myself a very big fan of the show, enough to own several shirts and the second season on DVD, enough to frequent the show’s main fan-site, and enough to have to talk myself out of walking into Build-A-Bear and getting a Rarity plushee every single time I walk past my local store (I also have an affinity for cute things, so that may not be just the fan in me talking).  My rejection of the Brony tag comes primarily because I don’t associate myself wholeheartedly as a member of any fandom anymore (and partly because “Brony” is second only to “Avatards” on my list of Embarrassingly Stupid Fandom Portmanteaus) and, therefore, keeps me at a distance.  I enjoy the show for what it is; very well written, strongly characterised, funny, gorgeously animated and full of a tonne of heart.  I enjoy it for the reasons I imagine its target audience would, not because there’s a two-second reference to Bioshock Infinite in the background of one of the episodes and not because I want to marry Twilight Sparkle (that is not a joke and is still nowhere near the most disturbing thing I have come across from fans of this show on the Internet, trust me).

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if that, appreciating and loving the show for what it is, is a problem in and of itself.  I understand that this is a kids’ show, made to be enjoyed firstly by little girls from ages 5 to 8, and I would never want the show to start pandering to myself, the older male fan.  I am a periphery demographic.  Yet that periphery demographic is the one driving discussion of the show, it’s the one that has become the focal point of discussion surrounding the show.  Hell, I wouldn’t have given it a test-run just over two years ago (I ended up accidentally picking one of the episodes that requires prior character knowledge, which is why I didn’t try again until my growing knowledge of animation led me in the direction of anything with the name Lauren Faust attached to it about six months later) if it weren’t for the periphery demographic making a giant noise about it.  And through all of this I wonder, what about the little girls from ages 5 to 8?  The ones the show was made for?  How do they feel about the show basically being stolen out from under them by grown-ups whose mere existence may have forever tainted the show for future generations?

Probably not too much, in all honesty.  The merch keeps selling, the ratings keep climbing (as far as I can tell, most of the adult fandom gather together to watch live streams on the Internet instead, which don’t count) and the kids still care enough that there are more than enough of them to turn up to most of the 900-bazillion fan conventions that have sprung up for the programme to redress the balance somewhat (I may spend a lot of my free time watching VA panels on the Internet, not just ones for this show, don’t judge).  Plus, even with the peripheral demographic, the show has yet to forget about its target audience.  It doesn’t openly pander to the periphery demo (the few times when it has have been the most cringe worthy things the show has done) and it still has the same style, voice and attitude that it did when it started, just with a slight bit more maturity to represent the growing up of its target audience.  The Bronies may dominate the conversation (enough to have two separate feature-length documentaries on their existence made) but the kids still have the show.  They still exist which goes some way to lowering my anxieties.

But this is not a feeling that is just linked to My Little Pony.  Regular followers of my Twitter may be well aware that I am a big fan of Gravity Falls.  For those who don’t follow my Twitter or aren’t aware: I am a big fan of Gravity FallsA big fan.  It is fast, it is hysterical, it is gorgeously animated, superbly voice acted, excellently plotted and full of immense heart.  It is one of the best shows on TV and I don’t know a single person in its target audience who watches it.  Of course, one could put this down to the fact that I don’t live in America and I don’t hang around children (…probably could have phrased that better) but I see a lack of kid fandom or references to children anywhere in discussion of the show, even though its target audience is children aged 7 to 11; that’s what the TV-Y7 rating is for.

Instead, it’s a collective group of intense adult fans combing the show for clues to its mysteries.  The show’s creative staff (creator, writer and voice actor Alex Hirsch, especially) lean on the show’s more grown-up fandom in conversation much more frequently than those in other shows I know do (Hirsch even all but said that it’s down to us if we want Disney to release merch for the show).  I’ve seen precisely one kid at a panel for the show (they asked a question that Alex, who teases and trolls like a master, wasn’t allowed to answer, it was cute) and few, if anybody, would refer to the show as “a kids’ cartoon,” even though it kinda is.  We’re about to enter the second season so we’ll get an answer then as to if the periphery demographic have managed to infect the product we adore so, but it worries me as to whether the target audience cares at all about Gravity Falls.  And if that is the case, then have we adults hijacked the show from them and co-opted it for our own?

Maybe it’s a question of gender roles and gender narratives.  My fear of my stealing of Gravity Falls from its target demo is less vocal because the talk surrounding the fandom is non-existent, arguably because the target demo for Gravity Falls is not exclusively little girls and the story “Adults Enjoy Watching Cartoon For Children” is not as sensationalist as “Grown Men Love My Little Pony”.  You could argue that it’s the same reason why the very large and very vocal adult Adventure Time periphery don’t get any such “co-opting” claims or fears; ditto Regular Show.  They make up a huge percentage of the fandom for Adventure Time, we’re talking near-Sherlock levels of activity on Tumblr…  OK, maybe not (practically nothing else on Tumblr gets close to Sherlock levels of devotion), but you get the general idea.  From what little I’ve glimpsed on the Internet (I’m still yet to get into Adventure Time, I keep switching off because the first season is just weird and rough as all hell), they’re basically a well-organised fan convention away from being near equal to the size and scale of Bronies.

Except that Adventure Time and Regular Show are barely for kids as it is.  They both sport TV-PG ratings and wear them with pride, watch either show (in their American formats, for the love of the Maker, if you’re going to watch either of these shows, do not watch their bowlderised UK edits) for more than three minutes and you’ll get why they’re intended for an older audience than My Little Pony (TV-Y) and Gravity Falls (TV-Y7).  It’s hard to steal something from a group of society if it’s not exactly being made primarily for them as it is.  And besides, the best cartoons aren’t just enjoyable for kids.  They’re enjoyable on multiple levels for all audiences: there’s a great throw-away scene in Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends where the show’s creator Craig McCracken pops up in its universe that caused my 19-year-old self to almost fall out of my chair in gleeful amazement.  But the scene also works if you’re young and have no idea who the guy is because the joke is rooted in the situation, not Craig McCracken.  (Ditto pretty much the entirety of “Frankie My Dear” which becomes extra hilarious if you believe rumours that Mac is based off of a young Craig and Frankie is based off his wife, Lauren Faust.)

Maybe my anxieties are just rooted in lack of the passage of time.  After all, I’m a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls and I don’t feel like my being so is going to/is ruining it for future generations.  If I were a fan at the time it were going out (which I was) but this age, I’d probably feel how I do with My Little Pony and Gravity Falls.  And then you have the collective nostalgic waxing by the Internet every time somebody announces a movie remake/adaptation/reboot of some beloved Saturday morning toy commercial (Transformers, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, most recently, Power Rangers).  Perhaps the distancing effect of time creates the effect that things are now allowed to be freely appreciated by everyone equally, regardless of their age or the work’s intended audience.

But… just what if none of this matters?  What if I’m not actually co-opting jack?  Yeah, I may be a big fan of cartoons made predominately for kids, but does that mean I’m truly ruining it for the kids?  No matter how large the Brony fandom gets, no matter how many conventions they create, no matter how loud they may get on the Internet, no matter how many Rule 34 ship-drawings of Applejack and Rainbow Dash there may be, and no matter how many plushees get sodomised by people that I would like to forget exist, thank you kindly, the little girls aged 5 to 8 will still have the show.  They will always have the show.  Friendship Is Magic hasn’t changed due to the stuff surrounding it; if anything the show has strengthened its resolve to non-corporate outside influences.  The target audience will still have the show.  Everything else is just noise.

Maybe the simplest way to resolve this problem is to just stop labelling cartoons as explicitly for kids in daily conversation.  I don’t mean “stop making cartoons directly for kids,” not at all.  But what I mean is that we should stop having to separate kids’ stuff from adult stuff so much.  A random episode of The Amazing World Of Gumball has way more laughs and stronger characterisation than The Big Bang Theory at its best, for example.  I have heard that Steven Universe blows most current prime-time dramas out of the water (I need to get around to watching it).  The Legend Of Korra and its more famous original series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, are almost never referred to as kids’ cartoons even though they are; that’s the kind of level they operate on.  You class something as “for kids” and you immediately class it as “other”, something that requires lowered expectations, a different metric for success and can only be enjoyed by its target audience.

Entertainment can be enjoyed, loved and embraced by all.  So what if mainstream society is co-opting something made primarily for a specific demographic?  Who said they’re trying to?  Maybe they’re just in love with a show and don’t care about its “other-ness”?  If we had a generation of children get really into Community, would we be accusing them of co-opting media that’s not for them?  No, because that would be dumb.  Good media is good media and we shouldn’t be discouraging people from liking good things because “it’s not supposed to be for them”.  This is why I never pull any punches when I review films aimed at kids because crap shouldn’t be given a Get Out Of Jail Free card and quality should not need an appended asterisk.

So, yeah, I am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek.  But I don’t care and I’m going to keep on preaching about how Gravity Falls is the best thing to hit TV since Community debuted because I refuse to be made to feel bad for liking something that’s apparently not supposed to be for me.  Maybe this makes me selfish, stealing away pleasures designed for people who don’t often get enough pleasures aimed at them.  Maybe this makes me progressive, somebody who is sick of barriers dividing what is supposed to be enjoyable to who and who thinks that cross-demographic enjoyment on equal levels is something to be encouraged not shunned.  Maybe it’s a bit of both.

All I know is that I don’t care either way.  Now, would you pass the remote?  Wander Over Yonder is about to start.

Callum Petch has been putting up with your constant whining.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!