Friday, 30 January 2015

Equestria Girls recap-review

Equestria Girls is the first feature film based on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. When this was announced, people freaked out. They were afraid that the film would be drowned in high school clichés, and they were upset that the first pony movie wouldn’t actually have the characters as ponies. In fact, when it came out, it was revealed that very few of the characters we know and love would have major roles in this film. In fact, only Twilight is as we know her. People feared that there wouldn’t be an actual pony movie, but now that one’s been announced, it turned out that those fears were unfounded. But is Equestria Girls itself any good? Well, let’s dive in.

The film begins with Twilight Sparkle and friends headed to a Princess Summit. The dialogue’s a bit weird in this intro: Characters seem to be exaggerated a bit, and the quality of dialogue leaves us wanting. It seems that the writers are attempting to quickly establish the characters we’re so fond of, but in the process are eschewing subtlety. Twilight mentions not being used to being a Princess, awkwardly failing to use her wings. I’m right there with you, sister.

When Twilight walks into the castle, we see her greeted by a gathering of identically-modelled Crystal Pony guards, plus one random Pegasus. Having seen this movie before, I know that this is actually a moment of foreshadowing, but we’ll get to that. As it is, it’s a small re-watch bonus, but one that raises questions. What’s this guy doing here? How did he get to guard the castle in the Crystal Empire? I want to see THAT story!  

Twilight tells spike about her misgivings, including this line: “What if now that I’m a princess, Celestia expects me to lead a kingdom of my own?” Well, about that, Twilight… Oh, you’ll see in the next season.

Cue intro song! What we’re given here is a remix of the Friendship is Magic theme song, and it’s actually a really good title sequence. The accompanying visuals are pleasing, and the remix itself is fun.

But then, a shadowy figure steals the crown. There’s some nice, quiet slapstick here, leading to a chase sequence as Twilight is awoken. Later, it’s revealed that the figure is Sunset Shimmer, a former student of Celestia’s. She went rogue due to her impatience. Unfortunately, the voice that Sunset is given is a generic antagonist voice, and it gets grating. Sunset disappears through a mirror, which we learn is a portal to another world. Cadance informs Twilight that she needs to follow the mirror to retrieve her Element of Harmony. Does anyone actually know what’s on the other side, though? Celestia’s reign has been so long that she must have SOME idea of what’s on the other side. Why, exactly, isn’t she telling Twilight? That might have prepared Twilight more for what’s coming… and prevented some of the pain we’re about to experience. Brace yourselves.

Spike decides to follow her, like an idiot. In the other world, however, he’s revealed to have turned into a dog. Twilight turns out to be a human, which neither Twilight nor Spike actually understand-presumably, primates just don’t exist in Equestria. They find themselves in a land unfamiliar to them, but familiar to us. Here’s where the real agony begins. Twilight doesn’t know how to act like a human, and promptly embarrasses herself. Thanks, movie. I’m so glad you showed us this. I know I needed a double-dosage of cringe comedy in my children’s movie. There’s some small funny moments, but for the most part the secene is awkward and goes on for far too long.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before it becomes an elephant in the room. I think the movie looks fine. A lot of people have disagreed with the strange art style, and I agree that it does have some problems. The proportions are seriously off, most notably, but the head shape makes faces occasionally look awkward. That said, I take no issue with the colour-coded skin. I think it’s an interesting artistic choice and complements the bright colours of the characters’ hair. In addition, I think the models are fairly solid and the animation is pretty clean, and the lighting is well done. If there’s just one complaint I have, it’s that occasionally the arms can look a slight bit weird, but it doesn’t take me out of the movie.

Anyways, Twilight meets a character resembling the Pegasus who greeted her back in the Crystal Empire, and we’ll get to this guy later. The first musical number begins. This isn't one of the series' stronger compositions, but lyrically, it clarifies one of the movie’s main themes. This is probably the point where the film most blatantly compares Twilight’s predicament to adolescence, which seems to be the main theme of the first part of the movie.

Soon afterwards, we meet Sunset Shimmer, talking to this universe’s version of Fluttershy. Twilight chooses to stand up to Sunset, but Sunset replies by just asserting her dominance. In comes more cringe comedy, but it’s much briefer here. It’s soon followed by Fluttershy excitedly doting over Spike’s dog form, in a neat scene that parallels the show’s pilot. This is followed by the reveal that Fluttershy’s struggling to find volunteers for the animal shelter. We discover that Celestia is the principal of the school, with Luna as her vice-principal, and that Fluttershy has animals in her backpack. D’awwww.

Twilight enters Celestia’s office and-oh, for Pete’s sake. Movie, we get it. Twilight’s mannerisms are awkward in the human world. It’s not funny anymore, not that it ever was. That said, this scene is interesting enough. Still, it might be representative of new students feeling awkward when talking to faculty members. Still, Twilight really should’ve put more points into her social skills stat. In any case, Twilight finds the school holds a sort of competition called the Fall Formal, where Sunset wins the crown in a popularity contest. Twilight sets out to win said cro-NO. BAD MOVIE. NO MORE CRINGE COMEDY. STOP IT.

There’s no actual mention of anyone going to classes in the movie, but to be fair the halls are set up so that everyone who appears there seems like a student moving around between classes. Still, the movie could have benefitted from at least mentioning them in passing. As it is, it seems like that aspect of school wasn’t even considered. The movie does take hints regarding the social makeup of a high school from other school comedies, having classic tropes like dividing the school into cliques and having a queen bee. So it's like, say, Mean Girls. 

Twilight continues her journey to run for Fall Formal Princess, and when she steps into the gym it’s pretty clear who she’s gonna talk to next. I mean, this movie is mostly gonna be watched by fans of the show, so we see the balloons and streamers, and we know what’s coming. Pinkie Pie appears, and the quality of comedy immediately skyrockets. “Not usually,” Pinkie replies, when asked if people can read minds in this world.  She doesn’t flinch when Twilight tries to hold the pen in her mouth, either. Enter Applejack, who enters by chugging a fizzy drink. Uh, AJ, are you sure about that? What we discover is that the characters we knew in Equestria aren’t actually friends in this world, a conflict which winds up taking front and centre in this movie. By the way, that fizzy drink didn't affect Applejack in the slightest. Man, this movie about technicolour ponies going through portals to the world of technicolour humans is really unrealistic. 

Pinkie was right about Twilight’s handwriting, though. It’s pretty crummy.  Sunset confronts Twilight, delivering a self-aggrandizing speech, full of mockery and threats. It’s a decent establishing moment for Sunset as a villain, though she’s not really the most creative. Twilight realizes that she doesn’t know anything about fitting in, so she tries to do research in the library. Unfortunately, this movie realized that it was starting to be comfortable, so viola, more cringe comedy. This scene in particular actually fits into the plot, so it serves a purpose, but still, could it have at least been more tolerable?

Bizarrely, the Cutie Mark Crusaders are somehow fit into the school. The indication in Equestria was that they were a fair bit younger than the mane six, but in Equestria Girls, the age difference is a couple years at most. At the very least, the character models seem to reflect this, so perhaps they're aged up. That said, their scene is so blatantly a piece of fan service that it makes “Magic Duel” look subtle, and making them students is probably one of the laziest possible ways they could have been included in the movie. Just slamming together familiar things from the show, huh?

Snips and Snails take pictures of Twilight failing to use a computers and embarrassing herself, because according to the movie we haven’t gotten enough of THAT. Remember: We’re 30 minutes in to the movie and the same joke has been repeated ad nauseam. Twilight finds a place to sleep in the library, which is only fitting. Too bad she doesn’t understand what a yearbook is. Aren't there any of those in her world? Well, I guess that lends credence to some people’s theories about education in Equestria, at least.

Twilight sets out to win the hearts of the school, but Snips and Snails’ pictures derailed that. Nobody back in Equestria could have, you know, prepared her for this? I mean, I know there was no time, but as we’ll see, time isn’t exactly something this movie is concerned with.

Wow, Sunset’s intense! She’s running smear ads for a popularity conquest. High school social drama be crazy. We learn soon that Sunset has used divide and conquer tactics to split up the equivalents of the mane six. Seeing these characters whom we’re familiar with as friends reestablish those friendships is nice, and it sorta carries over the spirit of the show to this movie. For some reason, Rainbow Dash challenges Twilight to a game of football. That’s “soccer”, to Americans. …and also to my fellow Canadians.

The thing is, the movie starts to put emphasis on these connections. Yet, with Twilight still belonging to another world, it feels out-of-place to try to emulate the themes of the first season. These people look like Twilight’s friends, but they aren’t one and the same, and Twilight still has to accomplish something here and leave. From this point, the film partially derails.

Enter Flash Sentry. I’ve been building up to this, but we need to talk about Flash. The guy’s voice actor put on a weird emphasis in this scene, and combined with Flash reaching down for the cup a split-second after Twilight, it appears that he’s revving up the good ol’ chick magnet. Shut up, it sounded better in my head. In any case, Twilight is charmed by this, starting what I call the “romantic non-subplot”. I mention this because Flash is a complete and utter non-entity in the film, and this is probably the most undercooked idea in the entire movie. It’s not really something that breaks suspension of disbelief, but it would have been easy to just remove him from the film altogether. That leaves us with just a sort of “infatuation subplot”, which nobody actually likes. This element is, for the most part, a waste of our time and one of the more annoyingly cliché parts of the movie.

It’s immediately forgotten about anyways, so it’s clearly nothing. We’re soon showed a school pride outfit that Rarity made, which… well, I can see why Rarity hasn’t sold some in ages, though that must mean that her attempt to appeal to the furry demographic was unsuccessful. Cue song #2, the weirdly popular “Helping Twilight Sparkle Win the Crown”. The instrumental is bouncy and fun, and the composition is really catchy, but this has got to be the worst thing Daniel Ingram has ever written. It consists of forced references to the themes of the show and awkward line after awkward line, eventually giving in to an overlong, repetitive chorus. It’s fun, but Twilight and co. should be glad that nobody listens to the lyrics, or they’d just be digging their own grave.

Then, Sunset stoops to new lows to get at Twilight. Sunset’s exaggerated voice acting in this part makes me wonder why Luna isn’t more skeptical. Flash oversees this and sneaks away. Clearly, the Fall Formal Crown is serious business. Twilight is interrogated by Luna in what would be a somewhat interesting scene if it lasted more than, what, a minute? As it is, however, this little bit is more filler than anything, and an opportunity to continue forcing the romantic non-subplot. I think this moment would’ve been better without the non-subplot, because it’d help Flash’s character be more likeable and make his motives less questionable. I mean, watch this scene and tell me that Flash doesn’t have an ulterior motive. I dare you, especially given that Flash asks Twilight out RIGHT after.

Er… Twilight? Don’t you have something else to do? Twilight finally remembers what she’s actually here for, and fears that she won’t be able to accomplish it due to Sunset trashing the gym. I suspect Pinkie has been doing some eavesdropping, because when Twilight reveals her true identity, she interrupts Twilight with a so-called "lucky guess". This is followed by a musical montage, except this time the song isn’t interesting in the least bit. Bland guitar riffs, bland harmonies, bland lyrics-at this point, Ingram must have just given up. To be fair, at least the harmonies are good, which is something that the show’s music usually succeeds with. Later on, the usual repetitive chorus is accompanied by a soaring vocal line, which I can't say for the next song, which starts really soon after. So soon after the previous, the harmonies and synth lines are far less interesting, and if there was any doubt about the previous one being filler, the fact that there’s two montages back-to-back proves that the film needed something to pad out some of the running time. But hey, pretty dresses!

Twilight allows a dance with Flash, who again proves to be shoved in last-moment. Honestly, though, I think I just don’t like this part of the movie existing, y’know? It just doesn’t feel right to include the high-school-crush trope in something MLP related. Like, we don't really need this in this series, and it was sort of a breath of fresh air that the show never introduced such a thing. 

So, of course, Twilight wins the crown. Was there really ever any doubt? However, Snips and Snails kidnap Spike. They release him as soon as Twilight is led to Sunset, who is threatening to smash the mirror portal if Twilight doesn’t hand the crown over. Bafflingly, Twilight somehow decides that Sunset, who is just a run-of-the-mill manipulative jerk without any magic, is a big threat that must be stopped. Did… did this script ever get proof-read? Did they just finish writing and shove it out the door? Sunset is not a big threat, and even if you take care of her, there will be another one. You’re a princess, and you have to return the Element in order for the protection of Equestria. I… I’m at a loss. Of course, this seems to be based on the idea that Twilight couldn’t just possibly make a break for it before Sunset swings the hammer. Twilight then, for some reason, decides to stay and not make a break for the portal when Sunset actually DROPS THE HAMMER. What.

Of course, Twilight waits a bit, and then Sunset, angry and jealous at the affection Twilight’s getting, jumps her. Doesn’t Twilight have no time to spare? Why didn’t she run to the mirror right after Sunset dropped the hammer again? Jeez. The crown is tossed around, but of course, Sunset ultimately gets it, which fills her with power and allows her to transform into a generic demonic form. None of this would have happened without Twilight’s stupidity. Sunset transforms the students into her mindless zombie army, spouting bland lines. There’s also a Wilhelm Scream, which is pretty neat.  

For the record, the portal is STILL OPEN at this point. Twilight’s new friends don’t fall under said spell... for some reason... and are protected from an energy bolt by a deus ex machina. Some sort of friendship magic gives the humans pony ears and wings and stuff, while Twilight gibbers pure nonsense. At least it results in a pretty cool sequence, but the rest is asinine. Was this ending written over a lunch break? What happened to quality control?

That said, the final scenes with Sunset Shimmer are fascinating. “I didn’t know there was another way,” she says, implying some character depth that the movie didn’t dare touch upon before. I have a theory about this: Perhaps the friendship-beam fills people with a feeling of friendship, and if they can handle it, it makes them reconsider their past actions and realize how they’ve hurt people. I dunno, that’s just what I think, and this ending lends a lot of legitimacy to that. This particular scene is brilliant, but doesn’t quite justify the asinine crap in the rest of the ending, especially since it’s filled with weird, pretentious dialogue.

So everyone suddenly knows that Twilight’s a pony princess or something, and she has the time to dance before the portal closes. Remember when I said that time isn’t the movie’s biggest concern? This is what I was talking about. How does Twilight have time to dance? Why is the movie still going?

Oh, and the portal is in a horse statue. Nice touch.

So Twilight goes through the portal, and later bumps into Flash Sentry in Equestria, who for some reason has better voice acting. Then the movie ends.

When I first heard of Equestria Girls, I feared the worst. I don’t even know what I was afraid would happen, but at the very least, the movie managed to surpass my rock-bottom expectations. That might be why I enjoyed it as much as I did on first watch, because this is not a great movie.

It certainly has its moments, but it’s haphazardly assembled, relies too much on the same bit of cringe comedy, and has a horrible ending that shouldn’t have made it past the editing room. This is my second time watching it, and I can’t say it’s bereft of redeeming value, but it’s heavily flawed and a lot of its problems tend to drown out its better qualities. It tries to establish that the “magic of friendship” exists everywhere, but it seems kinda pointless because if it didn’t, then the “magic of friendship” wouldn’t be a theme of the series in the first place.

I don’t want to make it seem like I didn’t enjoy the movie at all-some of the humour is pretty good, certain elements are fun, and there are some decent ideas in here, but Equestria Girls comes off more as a cynical product that benefits from decent characters than a proper film based on the TV series. Even then, the characters aren’t written at their best, as they lack the three seasons of character development that the pony versions of these characters had gained at the time this movie was released.

But hey, at least we have the sequel, right? 

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