So on the back of the stratospheric success of MLP:FiM comes the first feature film, released theatrically in the US so that bewildered parents can look at the multitudes of [insert your own stereotyping adjectives] bronies sharing the cinema with their families with great concern, and likely have their kiddies get disapproving looks right back, what with the presence of the target audience being an unfortunate distraction.
The Equestria Girls project has had little approval in fandom – set in an alternate universe, it has the ponies represented as teenaged schoolgirls attending ‘
’. Not, as I had expected, a completely
alternate-universe setting, it is in fact not only within the timeline of the
show but directly follows on from the end of season 3, with Twilight newly
alicorn-ified and quite sweetly having difficulty adjusting, with a sweet scene
of her unable to get comfortable in bed with the new limbs that sprouted from
her back. The other world is much like our own…only with nobody at all alarmed
by blue, orange or violet skin – anything as long as it isn’t a dark shade,
slightly worryingly. Just look at Luna! Canterlot High School
After her sparkly princess crown is stolen by a mysterious former protégé of Celestia’s by the name of Sunset Shimmer – clearly she selects student with light-phenomena-at-times-of-the-day themes – Twilight has to follow the ne’er-do-well through a magic mirror to another world, with only her loyal dragon Spike as company. On the other side of the portal, Spike has turned into a dog, and Twilight into something weirder – a human teenager. After some obvious culture shock, she makes her way into the ‘castle’ – actually a high school – and finds that not only do all her friends and acquaintances have counterparts here, but the crown was picked up by this world’s Fluttershy and given to Principal Celestia. Unable to talk her way into getting the crown back as her property in an inelegant scene that would have been much clearer if they stressed that Twilight’s crown looked just the one that was to be given to the prom queen that year, Twilight of course resolves to be that year’s prom queen – but will have to become popular first to win the hearts of the student populace!
Like most in the fandom, my reaction to initial leaks of the ‘Equestria Girls’ concept was scepticism. Much of the appeal of the ponies was – to me at least – their distinctive, stylised design, bright colours and despite all that clopping business, rather abstract, non-sexualised forms and simple world without the baggage of real American high schools. And of course, like just about all media based on life in American high schools, it focuses on issues of popularity, that weird and quintessentially American need to be very tribal, and the rife bullying that I’m sure is partly just a media representation but is clearly a big part of life there. You see, Sunset Shimmer has made her place in that world, established herself as the dominant bully of the school and always gets her way – because she’s a terrible bully. With Twilight having such quirky behaviour, she is of course an easy target for ridicule and the film has a chance to explore overcoming bullying…but sadly cops out with Twilight reuniting her best friends’ counterparts in this world after Sunset set them at odds with easily-undone tricks, they do a deeply embarrassing flashmob-style dance in the cafeteria in furry ears and tails, and suddenly Twilight doesn’t have to deal with the ridicule any more. It just…never gets mentioned again and she’s abruptly popular. And because her friends all belong to the different cliques (except Applejack, who hangs out with her little sister and the CMC, apparently either much older than they look and act or child prodigies accepted to high school at about ~11 years old), there are some throwaway lines about uniting all these disparate peoples.
Unlike many, I actually quite like the humanised designs – except Rainbow Dash, who looks kinda like some weird alien, and Vinyl Scratch who looks like a zombie. They’re skinny and idealised, but I expect that anything else would result in board members worried that dolls wouldn’t sell. Twilight’s human form is very sweet and there’s something less annoying about Rarity when she’s a teenager. I guess I kinda picture her as mutton dressed as lamb in the series, for some reason.
The problem here is really that the project clearly isn’t big enough in scale for a feature film. Even South Park and Beavis and Butthead knew that if they made the transition to the big screen, they couldn’t just churn out the animation of their series for the entire running time, but that’s what happens here. In fact, at the end, where it ought to get all epic and the animation stops pulled out, there’s a noticeable drop, with lazy transformation sequences (yes, really), and an altered Sunset Shimmer who looks a lot like the rather clunky early attempts at a Dofus animation. In story terms, it is also unsatisfying, with the aforementioned skirting of issues of popularity, the easy-out of the power of friendship, and the way Twilight relies on it so much despite, y’know, this super-magical friendship being based on a group of girls knowing her for a couple of days, and the way that while her pony friends are fretting to the point of tears about her back home and suffering terrible anxiety, she has a party and flirts with a dishy human boy (who has a pony counterpart, oh the drama!).
But we all know this is dished out for the monstrous fandom. I can almost see /mlp/ frothing at the mouth at all the ‘pandering’. Look, there’s Derpy dancing with a muffin, and there’s Scootaloo doing a chicken dance, and totally unneeded cameos for Trixie just because of her popularity with a leading news site. They must hate it. Yet…well, doing this humanised thing wasn’t really what the fandom wanted. It was much more what the little girls probably wanted. And beyond the thin plot, it takes the Pony concept somewhere a bit different, and I rather like that. Plus it comes a step closer to defining the characters’ ages and introduces a bit of romance beyond puppy crushes and secondary characters getting married. I don’t have as great a connection to the franchise as some and don’t care if it goes in new directions, so I quite enjoyed this for what it was – flimsy, light-hearted entertainment about some cute girls doing cute things.
And there’s a darker question here. I wondered what happened to Twilight’s counterpart, which was answered by Pinkie mentioning her being in ‘the city’. So where is Sunset Shimmer’s counterpart? Just what did she do to her to take her place?