Now, first and foremost, I should make it clear that "Rainbow Rocks" is not a film that will be enjoyed nearly as much by those who aren't already fans of the series. Some of the backstory and character work, as well as nods to continuity and the fandom, require knowledge that is found across the course of the show so far. With that said, let it be known that "Rainbow Rocks" improves on almost every aspect of its predecessor. The songs are better, the script is considerably better, and it's all around a much better film.
Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) is getting along well with her friends Rainbow Dash, Applejack (both played by Ashleigh Ball), Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie (both played by Andrea Libman), and Rarity (voiced by Tabitha St. Germain) after the events of the previous film. However, problems arise as the Dazzlings, led by Adiago Dazzle (Kasumi Evans), hatch a plan to steal energy from the school. Sunset and friends turn to Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) for help.
In the first film, characterization worked because of how the human characters paralleled their pony counterparts. In this film, characterization is mostly bereft of the character development that the show brought... and that makes sense, because these aren't the same characters. Some of the character development is stuff that's already been covered in the show, but it's executed well, and differently enough to not feel like a retread. However, Sunset Shimmer's character is exclusive to the film series, and her arc here is excellent. She has to come to terms with her actions after having been made to face them by the power of friendship (long story), and she doesn't quite feel she fits in yet. It's an excellent conflict, one which is relatable and carries great character development.
Meanwhile, the script is far tighter than the first one. Many elements are much tighter, though there is at least one moment which might not make sense to those out of the fandom. Still, a number of elements are explained in detail, the world is more cohesive than even the Friendship is Magic show, and a larger time frame is introduced, which makes the functions of the school make considerably more sense, even if we still don't see any classes. Still, near the end, where the most action and character development takes place, things get a little rushed. There's a lot of buildup, and the payoff happens almost too quickly. It's a small issue, but it's there nontheless. There's also quite a few more jokes, and unlike the first one cringe comedy isn't a factor. Indeed. this movie is much more clever than its predecessor, and boasts some really nice situations and comic timing. It's the humour that fans of the show love, and it's great to see it here.
However, one thing that will bother fans is that the issue of the characters' age range remains. Characters are written identically to their show counterparts, but they've been aged down or aged up in order to have them all in the same place. The gesture is appreciated, sure, but unfortunately it's far from the way to do it, and almost seems lazy. Fans will be far more delighted, however, to see a number of fan favourite characters in the centre, including Trixie (voiced by Kathleen Barr). There's even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene that heavily implies a lesbian couple favoured in the fandom is in fact canon. You go, Hasbro.
The animation utilizes many of the tricks that the writers have adopted since the first season, including dynamic lighting, depth-of-field effects, and a great deal of complex animations. It's all fairly impressive... and it doesn't look as good on the big screen. Colours are still bright and vibrant, but they look relatively flat. The picture's certainly in high definition, but it never quite shakes the feeling of being a TV movie expanded for the big screen. That's not necessarily a problem, but the art direction is in fact inferior to the show proper. Character proportions are odd in order to imitate the diminutive proportions of the ponies, but it has limited success, especially given the shapes of characters' heads. Meanwhile, the design of faces is uneven. Some characters, like Sunset Shimmer and Rainbow Dash, looked great, whereas others, particularly Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna, were slightly less so. All that said, the animation is still definitely impressive.
Songs are a huge improvement over the previous movie, with more variety in the musical numbers. There's a slight overuse of harmonies, but the quality of the compositions more than makes up for it. Songs have a less bland feel, with some heavily utilizing electronic instruments and others using more conventional rock instruments. Catchy melodies abound, and while they're not Ingram's best hooks, a few listens on YouTube will get them stuck in your head. Meanwhile, lyricism is Ingram's best in a long time. There's no more awkward subjects, no more moments of stupidity, no more odd wording choices. It's a distinct return to form, and Ingram's exploration of new genres is extremely promising for the upcoming fifth season.
So, it's better than the first movie in just about every way, but it doesn't really stand alone enough to recommend to everyone. Still, if you're already a fan, you have no reason not to watch this one. You may not have a screening nearby, but it's coming on video in October, so be sure to check it out. It improves on almost everything from the first movie, and boasts a number of excellent qualities in its own right. This is what the bare minimum standard of quality for this franchise should be, because it's what this team can do with a mediocre premise. In other words, it's pretty great.
(cross-post with Thrond Media)