Before this review, I deem it appropriate that I inform you about my strong feelings on this episode. I hate this episode. I hate it so much that I love to hate it. I hate this episode so much that complaining about it makes me happy. So, be aware that I may not be able to review this episode fairly, even though I will try.
At some point in the creation of "Magical Mystery Cure", I think there was a noble attempt. The idea was simple: An episode that celebrates how far the main character has come. using emotive writing and music. It's simple, really. The writers simply needed a reason to push this character to the next level. Only one problem: There were five other characters of equal importance in the way.
But, let's back up a bit. "Magical Mystery Cure" was, at one point, intended to be a two-parter. However, this couldn't be done. The season was cut short, and the finale had to be one part. So the writer made it a musical. The result is a relentless barrage of songs that never lets you up for air. These songs have some great compositions, to be fair, but the lack of a break between them is jarring. The songs utilize emotive melodies, which try and at some points succeed to elicit emotion from the audiences. It's actually some very strong songwriting, even if one of the songs consists entirely of tempting fate.
The story itself doesn't make a whole lot of sense. For the bulk of the episode, metaphysical gibberish is thrown left and right to try and explain the nonsense plot. At the end, I still have no idea how any of this actually happened, or what any of the characters were thinking. That's one of the big issues here: without much idea of how the characters are actually thinking, it's hard to make heads or tails of what's going on in the story. Much of the writing, especially in the "A True True Friend" sequence, is an attempt to cause reflection on how far the characters' friendships have come. However, what's not clear is exactly why the writers decided this convoluted story was the best way to express that. Perhaps there was something else to it that was lost as it was cut down, but we'll never know what it was.
One of the episode's more deplorable ideas, however, is how it pushes the idea of "destiny". It'd been pretty clearly established in basically every episode addressing cutie marks prior to this that they appeared when a pony discovered what it was they were passionate about. What "Magical Mystery Cure" tries to push is that cutie marks symbolize a pony's destiny. Somewhere in there is the original idea, as the characters at least think this is what their passions were, but the episode makes the cutie marks some sort of permanent role. It's been criticized from the start that cutie marks have the potential to strip ponies of autonomy, but that was never truly confirmed until this episode, and it's without a doubt the wrong direction to go in. And what's that really saying? That once you've fit into a role, they're stuck with that for their entire life? What a horrible thing to teach kids.
The next thing I want to discuss is the big thing: The make it-or-break it moment that seems to make people either adore the episode or (like myself) hate it with a passion. My take on it will be very negative, so I want to look at another thing the episode did right first. This episode is gorgeous. Shadow effects, depth-of-field effects, detailed animations, wonderful camerawork... All of that can be found here, in an episode even more beautiful than "The Crystal Empire". The animators really outdid themselves with this one, and as with Ingram's compositions, it's a shame this was the episode they wound up being wasted on.
Alright, let's make one thing clear. Twilight becoming an alicorn princess is not a problem in and of itself. I would be okay with this happening if it properly justified itself and happened at the end of an arc that was clearly moving in this direction. As far as I see it, this did not happen. But, even then, I could write it off as a dumb move in a not very good episode. However, it's how it tried to explain making Twilight a princess that makes me so angry at this episode. My main issue is collected here, but allow me to express it in more detail.
Over the course of the three seasons previous to this episode, the show had moved towards more of an ensemble cast. Each of the six main characters had come to have an equal importance, and each of them developed a great deal over the course of these seasons. There was a reason to be invested in any of these six ponies. "Magical Mystery Cure" trivializes that. In the "Celestia's Ballad" sequence, the rationale given is that Twilight has come a long way. So? What about all of those other characters that have come a long way? You could argue that Twilight has lead the six in saving Equestria three times, except if you actually look at season 2's bookend episodes, you will find that Twilight actually failed both times.
The episode places Twilight front and centre, as if something she's done means that she's the one specifically that deserves to become a princess. If they'd placed it upon her magical skills, or her management skills, that would have been believable. However, implying that Twilight had the most important, most significant personal growth is simply contrary to what has been shown over the course of, at the time this episode had aired, three seasons. Even if this had aired in S1, where Twilight was still at the centre of the show, it would have been contrary to the direction that season moved in. Since the first season, the show's been moving towards an ensemble cast, and "Lesson Zero" served to free the show from the shackles of being limited to Twilight's experiences.
The show has moved past that. It's not the Twilight Sparkle Show. Never has been, wasn't in S4, and never will be. Twilight is my favourite character, but her personal growth isn't the only one that needs to be celebrated. Sure, her friends are acknowledged, but they're accessories to Twilight Sparkle. They only matter for what Twilight has learned from them. Never mind that they must have learned things from Twilight and from each other as well, and that they've had just as much character development as her -- Twilight's the only one who's being recognized, and that's what makes me so angry.
Perhaps it's ironic, in a way. The episode puts such emphasis on how far Twilight has come, and yet it's woefully ignorant of how far the show itself has come in three seasons. It's sloppily constructed, boasts some very questionable messages, and features one of the worst ideas in the show's history. A year later, it's still infuriating. But, ultimately, it doesn't matter. Because as the fourth season has proven, the show will move on, and the show will recover. That's because My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is better than this, and because even in its darkest hour there's still hope.