Coming into My Little Pony: The Movie, I had the advantage of being familiar with the pastel-hued “Mane Six”, having followed the show for roughly the first three seasons. Unfortunately, my viewing trailed off around the point Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) became an “alicorn” (a unicorn/Pegasus hybrid) and was elevated to Princess status, mostly just because I found other interests. But Friendship Is Magic, the current incarnation of the Hasbro franchise, has gotten a good amount of critical acclaim throughout its run for its sharp wit, well-developed characters and appealing animation style.
This newest adventure sees Twilight fretting over planning a Friendship Festival that’s spearheaded by a performance from Songbird Serenade (Sia), the pony equivalent of Michael Jackson (or Powerline, for you Goofy Movie fans).
When the Storm King (Liev Schreiber) and her right-hand horse Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a unicorn with a busted horn, invade their kingdom to steal the princess unicorns’ magical abilities, Twilight and her friends Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain), Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman) Applejack and Rainbow Dash (both Ashleigh Ball) are thrown into life-or-death stakes relatively early. That’s remarkable progress for a cartoon from the 1980s that was known for conflicts involving fashion shows and tea parties.
In their search beyond Equestria for allies, the Mane Six and Spike embark on a quest where they tend to get out of conflicts by the sheer force of their moral convictions. The ponies engage in a good deal of slapstick (especially on Pinkie Pie’s part, as expected), but they’re more content to simply show kindness, break out into song and inspire the goodness in those around them as opposed to brawling (which they have done with a group of villains in one FiM episode).
Two notable examples are when an adorable feline conman named Capper (Taye Diggs, overloaded with charisma) tries to string along our heroes, but then he starts to have different ideas after he bonds with Rarity, and a band of retired sky pirates who Rainbow Dash wins over with a tune (“Time To Be Awesome”).
Another nice aspect of this film are the performances of the voice actors. Tara Strong is practically a living legend in said industry, and her work as the bookish leader Twilight is great as usual. Hasbro is obviously out to sell as many toys as possible with this film, but when she messes up and hits an emotional low, she feels less like a product and more like a person.
Blunt’s Tempest is suitably scary and has an interesting backstory, which is helpful because Schreiber’s performance as Storm King was a bit more comedic than I was anticipating. Still, their army is definitely a believable threat for the ponies, and director Jason Thiessen does craft some genuinely strong drama despite how basic the story is.
But that hyper-simplicity is probably my biggest issue with the film. In spite of the show’s wide-ranging appeal, in the end it’s skewed at the very young. Still, the television series has had some unexpectedly clever plots, so while I’m certainly not calling for anything too edgy or traumatizing for kids, a more detailed or at least less cliched story would have elevated everything for me. And normally pointless swerves annoy me, but this movie could have used some twists.
By the standards of the franchise, this is probably the best the MLP characters have ever looked. The work here from Allspark Studios clearly isn’t at the caliber of Disney, Pixar or even Blue Sky (Storm King’s airship looks bland and flat).
But the expressions and movement of the cast are appealing, and there are some impressive visuals- a good example in when the ponies visit Princess Skystar (Kristin Chenoweth)’s underwater kingdom in hopes of aid, which leads to a fun Pinkie musical number. Most of the other songs range from okay (“We Got This Together”) to genuinely catchy (Sia’s “Rainbow” and Capper’s “I’m The Friend You Need”).
Unless one is a die-hard fan (be they any age), My Little Pony: The Movie probably won’t blow you away, but there is something admirable about its sincerity and lack of irony. Though I’d have liked for it to take more chances in regards to the story, it’s a sweet and harmless cartoon with good messages and characters you can care about, so I had more fun with it than I expected. Mildly recommended, strongly if your kids are into MLP.