The My Little Pony franchise entered the category of Actually Good in 2010, with the launch of the cable series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Attentive parents and internet natives are familiar with the Actually Good phenomenon, by which artifacts of commodity culture occasionally, by some rare confluence of talent and care and corporate neglect, attain genuine quality. To be Actually Good is to triumph over low expectations—a Pixar movie can be great, but it can never be Actually Good—and a 25-year-old line of pastel toys with an inglorious history of commodity television spinoffs was a perfect candidate for a surprise injection of artistry.
Series creator Lauren Faust fulfilled the brief from Hasbro, inasmuch as she made a TV show about soft-hued ponies in a magical kingdom. But she gave those ponies distinctive temperaments, ambitions, weaknesses, and relationship-building strategies, and gave the show a narrative range broad enough to encompass both epic fantasy and social comedy.
So, inevitably, My Little Pony: The Movie arrives in cinemas—three years too late to capitalize on the series’ coronation as Actually Good. (Hollywood features are too lumbering and expensive to keep up with the rapidly evolving worlds of children’s TV and internet fandom.) It feels less like a narrative capstone than a trophy for the show, one that requires it to squeeze itself into an unflattering dress for the red carpet.
The film opens in a domestic register, with Princess Twilight Sparkle—the bookish, resourceful unicorn who serves as the series’ perennial audience stand-in—preparing for the Friendship Festival. (Planning and attending parties is a frequent preoccupation in Ponyville.) But the celebration is interrupted by the arrival of jackbooted alien thugs under the command of the Storm King (Liev Schreiber) and his aide-de-camp, a broken-horned pony named Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt). With their arrival, the movie shifts into epic mode, where it will remain until the closing credits.
The Storm King captures three of the kingdom of Equestria’s four princesses (he needs to complete the set to gain control over the weather, for reasons that happily are not explained even a little), and the series’ “Mane Six”—Twilight, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Fluttershy—escape and seek help. There’s the usual picaresque quest and parade of colorful supporting characters—a duplicitous cat played by Taye Diggs, a band of aerial pirates led by Zoe Saldana—on the way to the kingdom of the hippogriffs, who have fled the Storm King and relocated underwater. (In their world, our heroes transform into piscine shape, making Twilight Sparkle at once unicorn, Pegasus, mermaid, and princess—a quadruple whammy for some audience members.)
There are enjoyable set pieces—the pirate airship, the hippogriffs’ art nouveau undersea realm—and it’s pleasing to see the characters rendered in cinematic animation rather than the cheaper limited-motion style of cable TV. But the ponies’ exploits will feel familiar to anyone who has watched an action-adventure movie in the past decade. “I hate our big adventures,” finicky Rarity complains as the ponies get swept up in a whirlpool, and I found myself sympathizing. (For one thing, it means this likable character has little to do—with her combination of snobbery and graciousness, she belongs in a comedy of manners.)
But the series’ distinctive charms poke through, especially at the moment of crisis. Desperate to acquire the magical pearl that can save the day, Twilight deceives her comrades and exploits a lonely hippogriff (Kristin Chenoweth) eager to make friends. “This isn’t Equestria,” Twilight says—wrongly imagining that the franchise’s fundamental ethical principles are geographically contingent. She’s violated that Kantian ethos—to respect the personhood of everyone around you—and she suffers for it, justly and almost catastrophically. (She is redeemed by her friends’ forgiveness.)
The rules are right there in the title of the series: Friendship is magic, which is to say that friendship is the Ponyverse’s equivalent of the Force, the source of power and the engine of narrative resolution. According to the series’ rules, magic depends on the bonds among the Mane Six—which means that the obstacles on a quest are less likely to be physical than emotional. The endpoint of a My Little Pony adventure is not “Collect all the different-colored gemstones,” as in the Marvel Universe; it’s “Listen to one another, resolve the hurt feelings, apologize, help, and celebrate.”
The screenplay, by Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao, and Michael Vogel from a story by McCarthy and Joe Ballarini, is light on jokes, which is fortunate because the few that are there are terrible. The real humor comes from the sitcom-style satisfaction of seeing familiar characters behave like themselves. Fortunately, there are songs by series composer Daniel Ingram, who adroitly combines musical theater and the power pop that is the musical lingua franca of contemporary cartoons. (There’s also a song by Sia, who appears briefly as pony pop star Songbird Serenade.)
Along with stirring ensemble pieces, Ingram gives Tempest a Disney-style “villain song” that serves as the inverse of My Little Pony’s ideology: “The best way to survive is all alone.” Tempest’s story ends with a twist, one that might be especially meaningful to kids with disabilities or visible markers of difference. The only unredeemed villain is the Storm King, whose mildly frightening appearance is undercut by Schreiber’s goofy line readings. This lupine monster, alone among the movie’s major characters, doesn’t participate in the web of endlessly negotiated relationships that is the texture of life within the My Little Pony universe, and outside it, too. A greedy oaf who spends the film barking commands, reneging on his promises, and grasping for power and glory, he is out of place among the Ponyverse’s colorful and diverse residents, almost all of them female, talking and figuring things out and taking care of business and managing their differences and screwing up and apologizing and forgiving. He is, perhaps, a villain for our time.