Saturday, 7 May 2011

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (Season 1)

There is no question that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has become an unexpected smash hit and a part of internet culture. Given that the property has always been one considered only for small girls and that even the title suggests horrible, cloying tweeness, how has the show secured a broad and rabid fanbase, especially on image boards commonly associated with anarchy and cruel humour? Surely being hiply ironic cannot account for such widespread and sincere adulation?

In fact, irony has very little to do with it. The fans who like the show by and large seem to like it in a very straightforward, often very determined way. And there are to my mind three reasons it works so well. First, it centres on strong, character-based humour, working with broad, obvious personality types that as episodes roll on have layers of subtlety added. Second, it was clearly written with adults in mind as well as children: witness, for example, an exchange using stock lines for a drunk man demanding more booze from a barkeeper, only with donuts instead. And third, most importantly, is series creator Lauren Faust’s distinctive quirkiness and humour, which often centres on something bothering a character becoming an obsession that sends them more or less insane: even without her husband and creative partner Craig McCracken, and even more so than their Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, this feels like the spiritual successor to The Powerpuff Girls. It is less postmodern and zany – you won’t get episodes here based on Beatles song titles or direct Monty Python quotes – but it is similar in the way it takes an idea and runs with it to extremes, even if it makes its characters look neurotic.

The premise is a cute and simple one: in Equestria, the noble Princess Celestia has a promising young student called Twilight Sparkle. While she excels as a student and a mage, however, Twilight has no idea how to make friends. Sensing this in her, Celestia sends her young charge from the capital, Canterlot, to the smaller community of Ponyville, requesting that she discover the nature of friendship. In Ponyville, Twilight meets the tomboyish Rainbow Dash, the hardworking Applejack, the glamorous Rarity, the sweet-natured Fluttershy and the somewhat unhinged Pinkie Pie. At first she finds the idea of friendship bothersome and inconvenient, but she soon learns its value, and it just might save the entire kingdom when disaster falls.

It’s worth noting – since at least one critic has taken issue with it – that Twilight is not forced to consider a dichotomy: it’s not ‘study’ or ‘have friends’. She’s supposed to learn to balance the two, and even when the five other ponies become her best friends (along with her little dragon assistant), she never stops being bookish and smart. She just opens up.

The characters are extremely well-written so that there’s very likely to be at least one every viewer identifies with and finds likeable – though I liked them all and few people seemed to dislike more than one. Part of the series’ strength is that it does not make a point of having an almost exclusively female cast: the characters are diverse and interesting in their own right, so there is no need to push gender as defining the series or making a didactic point. Visually it is simple and bold, with smooth but repetitive flash animation and the expected bright colours, but is also playful and slips in little silly bits and pieces for fans.

The structure of the show is generally episodic: a character will usually find themselves having a problem, which is resolved with help from friends, and Twilight learns another lesson, like ‘don’t force yourself to be someone you’re not’ or ‘trust those close to you’. It may sound mawkish, but the ways these morals are reached tend to be very eccentric and often involve something of a mental breakdown, played for laughs, and often hilariously over-the-top cameo characters like the fashionista photographer Photo Finish. There is a general progression throughout the series, with references to earlier events, but sometimes things don’t carry over to other episodes: Twilight’s new assistant Owlowicious was never seen again, for example.

There are good reasons to stay out of the fandom for the show – as any show – because there are always people trying to gross others out and those who don’t find such things gross at all, but MLP:FiM, for all it might be dismissed for being ostensibly so childish and girly, had some of the smartest writing in animation for a long time. I look forward to season 2.

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