It didn’t hit me until I looked around the theater and realized what a strange feat Hasbro has pulled off with My Little Pony. To my right was my five-year-old daughter, eager and interested to see cartoon ponies on the big screen. To my left was a man in his late 20s wearing a Rainbow Dash sweater, equally enthused about the film. It’s not exactly the sight I envisioned 10 years ago for this franchise. I didn’t envision myself being as entertained by a My Little Pony movie either, but it’s hard not to be a little won over by such a film. (I’ll take a rain check on the apparel, though.)
Given that the film is based on a TV series with a heavy fan base, my initial fear was that it would be so heavy in its lore that newcomers or those who hadn’t kept up on the show would be left to drown in its confusion. As it turns out, not an issue. My Little Pony: The Movie welcomes us by reintroducing all the familiar ponies of the magical land of Equestria, from the party-obsessed Pinky Pie to the flying ace Rainbow Dash. Twilight Sparkle, the esteemed young princess of the kingdom, is nervous about organizing a special concert event, but she has the help of her pony friends to finish all the preparations.
That’d be enough of a plot for an episode, complete with Sia as the musical guest, but this is a movie, and the creative team needs to flex that theatrical animation with a suitably epic story. Before the concert can start, Equestria is invaded by the evil forces of the Storm King (Liev Schreiber), bringing with them black clouds, airships, and plenty of muscle-bound monsters to enslave all ponies. The invading forces are led by Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a pony warrior turned sinister by way of the tragic back story of her broken horn. With Equestria in peril, the key pony players must embark on an adventure to acquire some new forces to battle the Storm King and his dark magic.
This is not exactly an original story, and it’s very typical for a television series adapted for the big screen, but there’s enough spirit and creativity to prevent the formula from being too routine. The ponies meet several colorful and unique characters of unique species and personalities on their adventure. They stop by a dangerous trader town and run across the deceptive cat Capper (Taye Diggs), who is eager to make a dollar (or whatever is used for currency in this world) off the gang being wanted ponies. They take to the air and make friends with a collective of bird pirates, led by the decisive Captain Celaeno (Zoe Saldana). They seek the aid of the hippogriffs, led by Queen Novo (Uzo Aduba) and the perky Princess Skystar (Kristin Chenoweth), but discover that they have moved their operations underwater and transform themselves into sea ponies, a dream come true for a kid who loves both mermaids and ponies.
Every character comes with their own song, which is instigated by the ponies in some way that is always seen as positive or uplifting. None of these were particularly memorable, but they’re all staged with such exuberant pep and delightful choreography that I was never bored with the numbers. The TV series’ tagline emphasizes that friendship is magic, and the movie doesn’t disappoint in this department—on their adventure, the ponies make more friends than enemies and do their best to see the good in everyone. Most animated films seem to be so much about the bite they forget about the heart, but these ponies have heart to spare while still being witty and fun enough to not be innocuous ciphers of morality. They can be great role models and still pull corny puns straight from The Wizard of Oz and other Hasbro properties.
If the show featured the creative team using the Toon Boom animation software at its streamlined level, they have pushed the software to its limits with this film. The design of the series, with its angular characters and tweened movements, always looked a little cheap. This is not the case with the movie, which features so much traditional and expressive animation with the simplistic designs that I often forgot it was assembled in the same program used for the show. It’s rare to see a traditional animated film in this day and age, making this film all the more wondrous and beautiful to watch. Look at how much emotion is on the faces of the ponies as they range from manic to depressed. Scenes with the airships soaring across the skies feel grand and exciting—especially when Rainbow Dash performs her iconic Sonic Rainboom, which looks bigger and more booming here than it ever has before under the show’s budgetary limitations.
Being someone not all that into the show as the adult fan base, I was surprised how much I enjoyed My Little Pony: The Movie, despite its simple story and not-so-catchy music sequences. So I suppose the question arises: am I a brony? Not really, though I have watched about four seasons’ worth of the show, know all the pony characters by heart, and am aware of all the key voice actors. I have a five-year-old daughter—that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. There’s just not enough excellence in either the series or the movie to make me go insane for equine, but I’d still recommend the picture for all parents who want an animated film that won’t bore them, corrupt their kids, or try too hard to push a product (despite coming from Hasbro).
I’m not sure that it will win over childless adults or non-bronies to the franchise, but by all means borrow your niece, nephew, or friend’s kid if you’re curious about what everypony has been raving about.