Cinema Dispatch: My Little Pony: The Movie

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My Little Pony: The Movie and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate and Hasbro

Directed by Jayson Thiessen

It took them seven years to do this?  We’ve had at least four equestrian girl movies, not to mention a slew of Hasbro properties making it to the big screen, but one of the most successful reboots of all time was put on the back burner until now!?  Well better late than never I guess, though the trailers leading up to its release have certainly strained my credulity on that expression.  Still, trailers aren’t always accurate and I’m certainly a big enough fan of this series that it wouldn’t be THAT hard to keep me at least mildly entertained.  Can the team behind such a successful television series make a successful leap to the big screen, or was this as ill-fated a project as… well pretty much all the OTHER Hasbro films that we’ve gotten so far?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with yet another friendship festival that’s hosted by the Princess of Friendship (how much of Canterlot’s tax revenue is straight up pork for Twilight’s pet projects?) and they’ve even managed to get the one and only Sapphire Shores… I mean Countess Coloratura… I mean Songbird Serenade (Sia), to make an appearance!  Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) along with her assistant Spike (Cathy Weseluck) and her friends Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack (Tabitha St Germain, Andrea Libman, and Ashleigh Ball), seem to have everything under control and are ready to set everything in motion, but then a fleet of very intimidating airships descend upon the capital of Equestria and start demanding their complete and utter surrender!  It turns out that this is the opening salvo for a maniacal dictator known as The Storm King (Live Schreiber) and is being led by a mysterious pegasus with a broken horn named Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt) who somehow manages to take out the three other princesses, Celestia, Luna, and Cadence (Nicole Oliver, Tabitha St Germain (again), and Britt McKillip) without the slightest bit of resistance!  Either this is one bad mother of a pony or the Princesses need better security!  In any case, the Twilight and her friends manage to escape but don’t have much to go on other than a mysterious message that Celestia shouted out before she was defeated and captured by Tempest Shadow; seek the queen of the hippos who lives beyond the badlands.  Not sure how hippos will help in this situation unless you dropped them on Tempest, but with nothing else to go on they begin their journey outside of The Shire… I mean Equestria, hoping to find a way to stop The Storm King and Tempest before it’s too late.  What will our little ponies find outside of the comforting boarders of Equestria, and will they know how to deal with such strange and frightening environments?  What is Tempest REALLY after in all this, and what does the Storm King have in store for all of them once he arrives in Canterlot?  Is the answer to all these questions Friendship?  I bet it’s gonna be Friendship.

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“See, THIS place could use a WHOLE lot of friendship!”

Considering how negatively I reacted to the trailer, I am pleasantly surprised to be standing here right now and inform all of you that this movie is… pretty good.  It’s certainly a lot better than I thought it would be, and while it’s got some serious flaws that hold it back from being one of the BEST cartoon to feature film adaptations (that title is still securely held by The Goofy Movie), it manages to not be the cynical and tired exercise in marketing that I honestly thought Hasbro had cooked up and dumped in theaters this weekend.  Okay, to a CERTAIN extent it’s still an excuse to sell more toys as that is the primary reason for this franchise’s existence in the first place, but for a film that could have gone wrong in so many ways, it manages to avoid most of them and delivers a solid adventure that kids will certainly enjoy, and die-hard fans will more than likely appreciate.

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“The secret formula for turning ponies into lucrative box office returns is three parts Cute for every one part Pop Culture Reference.”     “It worked for Deadpool!”     “Ryan Reynolds IS adorable, isn’t he?”

If I were to sum up this movie in a single pithy statement, it’s that this is a GREAT My Little Pony movie… that should have been released three years ago.  Most of the movies problems, at least from my perspective (I’m not sure how younger fans will feel about it), is that we’re getting what is essentially a complete and totally safe tangent for the franchise; nothing that rocks the boat too much lest it cause problems for the series if it’s received rather poorly.  Here is a list of characters that are either not in the film in any way or are in there but in roles no larger than a cameo.  Celestia, Luna, Cadence, Shining Armor, Flurry Heart, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Maud Pie, Trixie, Starlight Glimmer, and even Discord who is one of the few that doesn’t even get a MENTION in this film which is about a power that could bring the world to its knees.  When I say this is a movie that should have been released three years ago, this is what I’m mostly talking about.  The series has expanded greatly in the past few seasons with the reformation of Discord, the birth of Flurry Heart, and ESPECIALLY the addition of Starlight Glimmer as Twilight’s pupil; so focusing THIS hard on the Mane 6 feels almost like a throwback to earlier seasons when the show was primarily concerned with building up those characters and whatever magical MacGuffin they were working towards.  The million dollar question though is whether this is a problem of the movie itself which as it’s gonna be on DVD eventually (heck, it’ll probably end up on Netflix before that), so will the fact of its release date be of any real significance in a few years?  I’m… not really sure.  It certainly was a bit deflating going to theater in 2017 to see a movie that could easily have taken place between seasons four and five when we’re already on its seventh and to a certain extent that will impact how much I feel it’s worth seeing right now in a theater, but honestly?  I think that having a REALLY solid My Little Pony movie, no matter how late it is to the party, is certainly better than a mediocre one that has all the up to date continuity front and center.

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Madam and Other Madam not appearing in this film.

So ignoring the fact that it feels like we’re watching something that’s been on a shelf for a few years now, what is it that makes this movie rise above the low expectations I had for it?  Well aside from having such a weak trailer to set the bar at the bottom of the barrel, it manages to be a rather engrossing adventure which is ALWAYS my preference for the series as opposed to the slice of life THIS IS THE LESSON OF TODAY episodes.  Heck, Ponyville doesn’t even get MENTIONED in this which is an absolute plus as far as I’m concerned, and the frontloading of fan service to the beginning of the film so as not to distract from what is setting this movie apart from the series was a very wise move as far as I’m concerned.  All the locations in here, aside from Canterlot which is in the beginning and at the end, are brand new for this current iteration of the franchise as are the creatures on hand to populate these lands.  Not only that, but they do a pretty solid job of raising the stakes and giving this quite a dark edge that I wasn’t really expecting them to go for.  Sure, you could tell from the trailers that the big bad purple pony with a broken horn was not one to be trifled with, but as the ponies go further and further away from Equestria (side note: I have NO IDEA where any of these new locations fit in with the established geography of the series) the worse things get as they run into thieves, grifters, and even slave traders which gives a rather depressing view of things outside of the utopia that the Princesses have set up in Equestria.  It’s an interesting take on the material that gives our main characters (particularly Twilight Sparkle) a chance to navigate all new dangers that we’ve never seen them have to deal with before and I kind of wish that some of this stuff actually WOULD end up in the series proper.

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How does she not lose every one of her teeth the first time she tries to parry a blow?

If there’s one problem with the new elements, it’s that a lot of it is way too predictable or feels overly contrived.  You can map out pretty much every new character’s story arc from the moment you meet them; from the duplicitous cat Capper (Taye Diggs) to the airship pirate crew made up of parrots (led by Zoe Saldana) who only needed ONE song from a magic pony to get their groove back.  They’re fun characters to be sure and are thankfully not in the movie long enough to grate, but it’s disappointing that the settings and the situations the Mane 6 find themselves in are more interesting to navigate than the characters that they meet along their journey.  This also applies to villains who in some ways are the most interesting aspects of this story while in other ways easily the least.  Liev Schreiber is absolutely wasted here as a stock villain who doesn’t have much of a presence until the last act of the movie which is a huge disappointment considering how talented and engaging of an actor he is; though at least he comes off better than Michael Peña who’s annoying minion character IS in the whole movie and you desperately wish that he wasn’t.  Emily Blunt as Tempest Shadow is actually a solid antagonist with an interesting design backed up by quite an intimidating performance, but as we get into the third act and we find out more about her, it all starts to fall apart.  I won’t get into too much detail, but we’ve seen THIS kind of backstory before as well as how her relationship plays out with Live Schreiber’s BIG BAD.  There’s just not a whole lot of originality with her which is a shame considering how strong of a presence she has throughout the movie.

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“What shall it profit a pony, if they should gain back their horn and lose their friendship.”     “Cool!  Did you come up with that?”     “Nah.  Saw it in a movie once.”

There are a few other things that bothered me in the movie, though less so than the predictability of some of the story beats.  The songs are pretty rough to get through as none of them sound any better than the songs we get from the series, and honestly those haven’t been all that interesting in the last season or so.  It’s the one element of the film that genuinely makes it feel like a television show that was being projected on the big screen, but if you still enjoy Daniel Ingram’s style of light pop friendship anthems, you’ll probably get a kick out of the ones in here.  The animation was a huge sticking point for me in the trailer, and while it looks SO much better on the big screen, there are still some rough edges.  I found that the CG actually looked passable once the ball started rolling, but Canterlot still looks rough as do the villainous airships that herald its invasion.  The sea ponies are a decent addition and the script has some interesting stuff for them to do, but it still feels like we’re taking a break from the ACTUAL plot to show off some underwater sequences.  Speaking of the sea ponies, they ARE involved in the ALL IS LOST moment at the end of the second act, and that scene didn’t quite sell for me.  Without spoiling it the very bad action that one character makes felt KINDA justified given the circumstances, but since the film wants morality to be a lot more black and white, the nuances of that character’s decision feel a bit lost in the process.

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“NOTHING TO SEE HERE!  No in depth examination of the difficult choices that need to be made in times of war!  Everyone’s happy, smiling, and keeping this at a safe and profitable PG!  BIG SMILES!!”

I’m sure I can pick apart this movie on a frame by frame basis considering how much I know about the series, but none of that would be enough for me to actively dislike this film as I found it to be quite an enjoyable ride with these characters that honestly feels fresh compared to some of the weaker episodes of the last few seasons.  It’s not QUITE what I would have wanted from a My Little Pony movie (WILL SOMEONE JUST DO THE REFLECTIONS ARC ALREADY!?) but for the movie that it is I think it shows a lot more care and effort than I was expecting from it.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering that one of the greatest strengths of the show and why it became so popular is BECAUSE it put in that extra effort that a lot of shows at the time weren’t really putting in and it ended up being a forbearer for this new golden age of children’s animation.  The movie… is not THAT good, but it’s certainly good enough for pretty much anyone who considers themselves a fan of this franchise.  Do you need to see it in theaters?  I’m gonna be a bit more positive than I probably should be and will say yes.  Just be aware that this isn’t a game changer for the franchise or even all that much better than a few decent episodes of the series played back to back, but it’s just grand enough of an adventure that it’s worth checking out on the big screen.  Now if only someone would convince Hasbro to make the next Transformers film a crossover…

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