In some ways a messier and weirder Equestria Girls film than Rainbow Rocks, yet just as fun and inspired, and possessing a fittingly climactic tone.
Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) is a student at Crystal Prep Academy who has been studying a strange energy signature coming from Canterlot High School. Viewers of the previous films know that this power signature comes from Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) and her friends, who are imbued with magic after the events of the previous movies. With the annual Friendship Games approaching, though, Twilight's attempt to understand this magic gets a bit more complicated. Even more than the previous, being a fan of the series is a must for enjoying this film. However, more than ever, I feel that it is entirely worth it. If there's one word that summarizes Friendship Games, it's payoff. Fans are, of course, already familiar with pony princess Twilight Sparkle of the main Friendship is Magic television show, and this alternate version of Twilight is the best depiction of the character in a very long time. For all intents and purposes, Twilight is to Friendship Games what Sunset was to Rainbow Rocks: One fantastic character who the entire film is based around. Twilight's arc here is an analogue for the show's pilot, where the more familiar Twilight made friends despite initially not being interested in such. Twilight is clearly made uncomfortable by the harsh environment of Crystal Prep, where students are self-absorbed and cold. This awkwardness is adorable, and her character arc, where she decides that she likes the Canterlot High students' friendliness, is one of the film's best parts.
Of course, the return of Sunset Shimmer is also a treat, and while she's not nearly as good as she was in Rainbow Rocks, she's still a fantastic character that can stand together with the show's own group of protagonists. It'll be a shame if this is her last hurrah, especially considering the still-unexplored dynamic between her and the human Twilight. In any case, she's fit in comfortably with the other main characters at this point, and while there isn't an interesting development in their characterization like there was in Rainbow Rocks, they're still fun presences. Our villain this time around is the principal of Crystal Prep, Principal Cinch. She's every bit as over-the-top a villain as those in the previous movies, but as she doesn't have magic, her deviousness takes on a more grounded form. She threatens Twilight's application to the university of her choice if she doesn't participate in the Friendship Games, and her actions from there just get more and more detestable. It's the grounded nature of her evil that makes her probably the most loathsome antagonist in Equestria Girls yet.
Unlike the previous film, however, the shorts that preceded it have no impact whatsoever. It's perhaps for the best, because they were mediocre on average, but watching them won't enhance the film in any way. There's a lot of other things that are unlike the previous film, too. The music, for example, takes on different forms. The musical numbers have a more typical musical feel to them, ditching the catchy pop rock of the previous film. They're still plenty of fun, but they don't carry the film as much as they did previously, and I don't think I'll be putting them on my phone any time soon. The background music, particularly at the start, has a weird, not entirely fitting ambient vibe to it. The theme song itself is probably the most disappointing thing about the entire movie, given the success of both the previous ones. It's nowhere near rousing enough to live up to them, and is kinda boring on its own merits despite the shredding guitar riffs.
The art style has been tidied up and polished even further from the previous film. All the lessons this team has learned over the past several years are there, from the sweeping shots to the complexity of the animations to the wonderful details. In fact, I swear that even the proportions have been altered to look better, though I can't confirm this for certain. Disappointingly, however, the biggest issue with the art style is still present, namely the skirts. Just as in the previous films, almost every female character is wearing a skirt as their casual wear, although, thankfully, they change to relatively appropriate tunics for the outdoors events. At the same time, though, it's a huge shame that the animators continue to put skirts on characters even when, considering their personality, it's doubtful that they'd be wearing skirts in the first place. It's questionable at best: Why on earth would Rainbow Dash ever wear a skirt when just wearing shorts would likely make mobility far easier?
Unlike the previous two Equestria Girls films, Friendship Games went directly to television instead of having a limited theatrical release. Perhaps consequentially, the running time is shorter this time around, and it's clear that some compromises were made to accommodate that. Far more exposition is handled through musical numbers than in even Rainbow Rocks, betraying a need to fit more into less space. Thankfully, unlike any time the show has attempted this, it actually works pretty well. Despite the compression, the plot still flows fairly well, and the musical numbers are enjoyable enough to appreciate outside of context. However, this is also a stranger film than its predecessor. Principal Cinch is actually probably the most over-the-top of the protagonists so far, and considering her comparatively down-to-earth occupation, comes across a little ridiculous at times. Stranger still is the climax, which is less like Rainbow Rocks's burst of energy and more akin to Equestria Girls and its pretentious gibberish. Thankfully, it actually makes sense this time around, even if the imagery is completely unexpected for a children's movie.
While Rainbow Rocks had humour that was almost good enough to stand alone, Friendship Games may require some prior knowledge to enjoy all the funny bits here. Unfortunately, this is not the film to break out to a wider audience, but these films have never been major releases anyways. There's a number of solid fan service moments here, and for fans, this is almost guaranteed to be an absolute blast. Some fans may particularly enjoy the expanded roles of Principal Celestia and Vice-Principal Luna, as well as the new appearance of Dean Cadance of Crystal Prep Academy. One big issue with the previous two movies has finally been dealt with, too: The romantic subplot isn't just gone, it's actively distanced from. Flash Sentry does not have a major role here, and he is not the subject of a romantic subplot. Having this finally excised is one of the most satisfying things the movie could have possibly done, and alone makes the whole package worth it.
The package is all worth it anyways, of course. If you enjoyed Rainbow Rocks, then chances are you will enjoy this too. Compared to the previous films, this one has an intangibly climactic tone, perhaps signalling that this is the conclusion of a trilogy. That's really a shame, because-for fans, at least-this subseries has been nothing short of delightful, first film and Friendship Games shorts notwithstanding. Friendship Games, while not as great as Rainbow Rocks, follows in the latter film's footsteps to be a thoroughly enjoyable watch for anyone who cares about these characters and their adventures, and it's every bit as inventive and entertaining as fans have come to expect. And besides, if you don't care for it, it's easier to avoid than ever before. For those of us who like this franchise, meanwhile, Friendship Games is more than enough.