Friday, 30 September 2016

"Equestria Girls: Legend of the Everfree" movie review

The Equestria Girls subseries is easy to dismiss. The first film, while better than it had any right to be, was nothing special, the high school setting is inherently less interesting than the fantasy world of Equestria, the movies are intentionally kept separate from the main show, and they only come out once a year. To dismiss them, however, would be to ignore the excellent Rainbow Rocks, as well as the messy-but-entertaining Friendship Games and a world of potential in the characters and world of the films. However, every piece of promotional material for Legend of Everfree had me worried. Sunset Shimmer, the series' best character, was often relegated to the back, the premise of the film suggested it wouldn't be developing any of the things I find interesting in this subseries, and there weren't even any preceding shorts. And yet, when clips surfaced on YouTube earlier this year, it showed a lot of charm. Even with my reservations, I was still excited for the film. Unfortunately, that makes it all the worse that Legend of Everfree is such a crushing disappointment.  
After the events of the Friendship Games, Twilight Sparkle has been having recurring nightmares about Midnight Sparkle, the demon form she took when she acquired all of the Equestrian magic around Canterlot High School at the time. When the school goes on a field trip to Camp Everfree, she becomes especially worried when she and her friends begin to develop magical powers. thinking that Midnight Sparkle is "still be inside her" and that her presence is having a negative impact on everyone around her. However, others believe it may be linked to an old legend of a creature called "Gaia Everfree."

Twilight's character arc is the primary hook of the film, and as a result much of the success of "Legend of Everfree" rides on how well her character development is executed. At least on the surface, this has a lot of potential for depth, as it's the first time the introduction of pony magic to the human world has been indicated to have a meaningfully negative effect on someone, and Twilight's guilt and trauma could be the basis for complex themes or at least a satisfying arc similar to Sunset Shimmer's in "Rainbow Rocks." The problem is that she has no redemption arc to fulfil, so all the film ever really does with her is continuously reiterate that she's haunted by "Midnight Sparkle" and worries that she's harming those around her. 

The thing is, she never hurts anyone. Relatively early in the film, it clarifies that her fears are largely unfounded, and most of the character arc is coming to embrace magic and move past what she's done. The latter of those ideas is a relatively strong sentiment, but on screen it comes across as repetitive and tiresome. Part of the problem is probably that the film is metaphorically incoherent - is magic supposed to represent something? If Twilight's struggle with Midnight Sparkle isn't literal, then what does it mean? The concept of "Midnight Sparkle" is always in an awkward middle ground where the film seems to want it to be a metaphor for Twilight's own insecurity while still talking about it as if it's something real. It probably doesn't help that Midnight Sparkle was mostly nonsensical in Friendship Games as well.

Speaking of which, Legend of Everfree is in many ways the opposite of the prior film. It's mostly coherent on a surface level, and instead of suffering from an overabundance of plot like Friendship Games, it's nearly plotless. Of course, Everfree never quite commits to plotlessness, as it still needs to have a main conflict lurking in the shadows, but it's so lightweight that half of its content comes across as filler. Ideas are stretched out far longer than they need to be, stuff like the aforementioned Midnight Sparkle issue is repeated endlessly, and all of its main plot threads only come together in the most superficial of ways. The film initially seems like an Everybody Wants Some!!-style plotless series of vignettes, but Twilight's internal conflict soon takes over, as does the plot thread about the mane six developing magical powers and strange things happening at the camp. 

Despite the film spending a lot of effort on suggesting that Twilight has nothing to do with anything happening at the camp, it takes a very long time to demonstrate what the actual cause is, and really, to get to the point. At one point it tries to set up love interest Timber Spruce as an antagonist, but this setup is distinctly non-magical, and even if Everfree weren't as formulaic as it is, it already telegraphs Gloriosa Daisy as being the villain at several points in the film. It's not exactly full of surprises, and this predictability makes the film's refusal to engage with its themes on more than a surface level all the more dissatisfying. After Friendship Games, this is the second Equestria Girls film in a row which feels unwilling to delve deeper into its own material. 

Much like the first film, a romantic subplot is set up involving Twilight Sparkle, this time with Timber Spruce. Unlike Princess Twilight and Flash Sentry, the two actually have chemistry, and their initial interactions are genuinely charming. Unfortunately, the film does less and less with them over time, and this is indicative of its flat treatment of just about every character. Twilight is the best-developed, but her constant and repetitive anxiety and guilt quickly becomes dreary under the film's down-to-earth tone. Meanwhile, the now-confident Sunset isn't particularly interesting at all. It appears that she's supposed to be a more confident counterpoint to Twilight, but that doesn't give her much personality. Meanwhile, their other friends are once again reduced to shallow readings of their personalities, which is only intermittently amusing. At the very least the new characters are charming, and Flash Sentry is finally starting to become a somewhat compelling character. There are sum fun hints towards Celestia and Luna's past, which is the kind of thing I want from this series, but these are heavily front-loaded. 

That down-to-earth tone I mentioned is probably the film's biggest problem. The soundtrack is filled with light flutes and guitars, several scenes seem geared towards mere warmth rather than humour or poignancy, and the humour is probably the mildest in any of these films. Everfree makes the original Equestria Girls look like Friendship Games in that regard, and combined with the film's sluggish pacing, this lack of great humour becomes really tiresome when the film starts to run out of new things to offer. It does have its moments, but these decrease exponentially in number as the film goes on. After a solid opening few minutes, the film meanders and repeats itself until it ultimately descends into a generic heroes-versus-villain faceoff, which while cliched is still more lively than anything that happens prior. 

This one hurts. I knew going in that Legend of the Everfree wouldn't offer much of what I enjoy in these films, but I had at least hoped it would be fun, much like Friendship Games was. Instead, I got what is easily the weakest of these films. It's an insubstantial, repetitive slog which stretches some ideas past the breaking point while leaving others seriously underdeveloped, and it suggests nothing so much as the writers running out of ideas for where to take this subseries. With all the unexplored potential that this series has on offer, nothing could be worse at this point than stagnation, but that's about all that Everfree has to offer throughout its droning single-hour running time. It didn't need to be this way, but it is, and while the setup for the next film shows some promise, I can't bring myself to be more than cautiously optimistic. 

On my usual flim review scale, this would be a 4/10, but since these reviews are Pony Corner exclusives now, let's use my pony scoring system. 

Entertainment: 4/10
Character: 4/10
Theme: 3/10
Story: 5/10
Overall: 40/100

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