Trying to explain exactly why My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is so popular is one of life’s great mysterious paradoxes. If you watch an episode of the show and are able to get on its wavelength, it makes perfect sense as to why it became popular: it’s a damn, damn great show that appeals to the older animation fan just as the cartoon-loving kids it’s targeted at. But as to how it’s become so popular, popular enough to spawn a giant fanbase with their own slightly off-putting nickname (“Brony”, which is at least seven-million miles better than “Avatard”), a vast network of artists, animators, writers, VAs and musicians that pump out so much brand-new fan-made content every day that the leading fan website, Equestria Daily, has to put most of them in separate roundup posts, a convention program that stretches all over America and the calendar year and is a large enough periphery demographic that the show’s network, The Hub, and the show itself has actually started pandering and selling to it (whilst, key factor here, never once losing sight of the original demographic)… that remains a relative mystery.
Speaking from experience, I’d have to hazard a guess that it’s down to how nice the show is, by which I mean the tone. There’s not a bad bone in its body. It loves its characters and its world and is endlessly optimistic about what each new day brings. There are enough shows elsewhere on TV that are incredibly serious and take great pleasure in putting its characters through the ringer, Friendship Is Magic acts like an antidote to that. A feel-good show that makes you happier by watching it. Of course, it’s not sickly and asininely sweet, where the schmaltz is laid on so think you could drown pastel-coloured horses in it and sell the remains as glue. Much like Disney Channel’s Gravity Falls, which is the only other show on television that I feel comes close to the same wavelength that My Little Pony operates on, Friendship Is Magic backs up the happy with consistent, strongly-defined and well-rounded characters, a great knack for crafting and expanding the world of the show, a very sharp sense of humour (this is a show that knows how to time every line and pratfall for maximum comedic effect) and, every so often, being surprisingly badass. It’s a very, very fine line to walk but it’s one that everyone involved with the show is extremely adept at pulling off season after season.
Season 3, at half the length of the prior two seasons, attempted to drag the show towards something slightly more mature than in prior seasons. The show tried to create plots and touch topics that were slightly beyond its usual reach and which could be resolved in a slightly different way than the usual “FRIENDSHIP IS THE BEST!” It also tried to shake up the status quo (reforming Discord), called back to prior seasons (THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TRIXIE’s triumphant return) and fleetingly attempted to set-up an overarching plot (and by “fleetingly” I mean “it showed up in the premiere and the finale”). These were tentative baby steps, but they were (80% of the time) high-quality baby steps, those of a show evolving without losing sight of its original ethos or what made it so unique and alluring in the first place. It boded well for the show’s future.
“Princess Twilight Sparkle”, the two-part season premiere, then, acts almost as a reboot of sorts. By that I don’t mean that Twilight has her wings ripped from her, Discord is turned back into stone and everything goes back to how it was pre-Season 3. Instead, the show attempts to consolidate the move towards a more grown-up tone that Season 3 started. The Elements Of Harmony are removed from the picture, a season-long story arc is teased in a manner that can’t be resolved in just the one 22-minute finale and it sets up a seemingly large main cast than, well, the Mane Six and Spike. It’s a very, very well-constructed hour that never feels crowded, despite the number of plates it has to spin and the only reason that it doesn’t break into the show’s pantheon of best episodes is due to it lacking the emotional resonance the show usually has in spades.
But, let’s start with the good stuff and that show-stealer Discord. Perhaps it’s down to my love of his voice actor John de Lancie, but I adore the character and he’s only made three appearances at this point! He started off as the kind of villain I love to see, the kind that poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their way of life but is just too gosh-darn entertaining to hate. There was that risk with his reformation that he would lose his entertainment value by having to conform to the standards of being a good guy, but that turns out to have been far from the case. In fact, though he’s lost the menace and immediate threat value, he has instead been turned into a comedic weapon of mass destruction. I swear that at least 60% of this episode’s best gags came from something that Discord said, did or wore. Plus, though he’s “reformed”, he’s still not good, as he both figuratively and literally sows the seeds of discord throughout the hour, allegedly to help Twilight learn “a valuable lesson about being a princess”. He’s that asshole friend, the one who is kind of a jerk but often means well and is a likeable enough presence that you keep him around, anyway. It’s a nice dynamic change for this show in regards to character relationships and I hope we see more of him soon.
One of the things I didn’t really notice until a few hours removed from the premiere was how the episode didn’t have an actual villain with a face. And no, Discord does not count. The immediate threat was simply “evil plants and vines, presumably from the Everfree Forest, are attacking Equestria”, nothing else. In fact, the threat was more a MacGuffin to address the issues of friends being separated due to one having a new job elsewhere. For me, this actually benefitted the episode. Much like Season 3’s “Crystal Empire” two-part premiere, the episode was super busy and didn’t really need a tangible villain so, unlike “The Crystal Empire”, writer Meghan McCarthy didn’t make one. This show is so good at crafting villains that a half-assed one would damage that reputation (hello again, Sombra) and the lack of one here speaks volumes to the surprising economical quality of the two-parter’s script.
Of course, “economical” may not seem like the most appropriate of words seeing as this premiere tackles (deep breath): Twilight learning to fly (the moment where Spike had to remind her that she could fly to Ponyville instead of taking the train was inspired), Twilight and co. dealing with being separated, Twilight dealing with her new status, the Everfree Forest attack, the kidnapping of Luna and Celestia, the banishment of Nightmare Moon, the original turning-to-stone of Discord, the current dynamic of Discord with the rest of the cast, the origin of the Elements Of Harmony, the returning of those Elements to the Tree of Harmony, the reveal of the strange box and the Summer Sun celebration (exhale). Put simply, that’s a lot of plot threads and such and just reading about them feels like it would lead to an overstuffed episode, like “Magical Mystery Cure”, last season’s finale, but 22 minutes longer.
And yet, it didn’t feel that way when watching it. It doesn’t feel that way a while removed from watching the episode, either. I’m honestly not certain how the episode managed to do it, but it did. I feel like every plot thread got an appropriate amount of time devoted to it, the history stuff was integrated seamlessly into the main plot and everything was closed off in a satisfying way or, in the case of our mystery box, teased enough without feeling like the episode lacked closure. Perhaps it’s because the episode equally barrelled through potential plot points and took the time to stop and catch its breath. Once the Discord theory emerged, the show promptly dismissed it by his mere appearance, nobody who is introduced having a shower whilst singing “Winter Wrap Up” is going to be responsible for anything other than split sides, and then gave us a few minutes of showing us what the Mane Six interacting with a reformed Discord would look like. Character beats instead of just plot beats and those help make a crowded episode feel otherwise.
Again, the one thing holding “Princess Twilight Sparkle” off from an A- grade is the surprising lack of emotion I got from the episode. Don’t get me wrong, the whole premiere was very entertaining and did a good job of creating the Friendship Is Magic trademark warm-fuzzy-feeling, but I failed to get fully connected with the episodes. I specifically recall the Discord two-parter, “The Return Of Harmony”, and the “Royal Wedding” two-parter that opened and closed Season 2, respectively. How both of those episodes’ climaxes had me metaphorically fist-pumping the air, 100% totally invested in the events transpiring and revelling in the victory and resolution as much as the characters on-screen did. That feeling never arrived here, and I’m not entirely certain why. Maybe it’s because the stakes weren’t particularly high. Even though the off-screen captures of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were well done, purposefully designed to leave your over-active imagination to fill in the blanks, everything afterwards failed to capitalise on that. Ponyville barely got a dent and what destruction and violence did occur was primarily played for laughs. The “overcoming the odds” sensation never arrived because there weren’t any odds to overcome. It doesn’t derail the episode, because it was very entertaining and succeeded in various other areas, but it does prevent it from reaching the highest echelons of My Little Pony episodes.
Season 4 is the make-or-break season, in all honesty. Last season demonstrated a show that was willing to begin stepping out of its comfort zone in order to change up a formula that, whilst still satisfying, could have done with a change-up. Doing so lead to various story based decisions that it can’t back out of and the slow move towards a tone that, if done wrong, could rob the show of the unique feel it has; and I say these things as a big fan of 80% of Season 3. “Princess Twilight Sparkle” was a great season premiere that lays some strong groundwork for episodes ahead by its commitment to story decisions past and the seeming embrace of a slightly more serialised nature going forward, all the while being a very fun hour of television that failed to lose sight of what made me fall in love with it in the first place. Here’s to the next 24 weeks, everypony!
- Welcome to my likely-sporadic coverage of Season 4 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, everyone! It’s apparently been a long time coming – to everyone who believes that the six month wait between the Season 3 finale and this was too long: become a Gravity Falls fan and then learn to appreciate what you have – but I’m here to follow along live, as it happens, for the first time ever, over the next, presumably, 24 weeks! Reviews will go up after each episode if my brain doesn’t drop dead whilst writing them. Hope to have you along!
- Rarity is Best Pony. Just thought you all should know that.
- I think the other thing that has kept this show a constant part of my life for the past year (I finally bit the bullet back in last December) has to be the unbelievably talented fandom who have kept me swimming in new comics, songs and fan-animations with each day that passes. So, each week I shall be spotlighting a fan song and fan-animation that I really enjoy and feel is worth your time!
- We’ll start obvious track-wise. The Living Tombstone’s remix of Discord by Eurobeat Brony is this week’s highlighted song.
- As for the fan-animation, I can’t seem to stop watching this pitch-perfect Homeland-style intro for the show. It’s… it’s just perfect, it really is.
- You want to know how quickly the fandom works? This went up two hours after the episode finished airing. Two hours.
- Upon first glance, the intro doesn’t seem to have changed too much, Twilight doesn’t even have her wings when she jumps down off the hot air balloon. But then the subtle differences occur, like Discord in Fluttershy’s window, before culminating in a very large group shot with a completely recognisable cast of secondary ponies. Potential foreshadowing of an even more ensemble-based season? One can hope…
- I watched this week’s episode on a rather low-quality stream, because the HD one hitched up too many times for my liking, and even I was awestruck at several of the sequences of animation in this premiere. My absolute favourite has to be Celestia and Nightmare Moon’s flight chase which I just plain didn’t think was possible in the usually stiff realm of Flash animation, let alone getting it to look so dynamic!
- The chat kept making lots of Hentai and Rule 34 jokes with regards to the evil vines in case you wanted a reminder that The Internet is still The Internet.
- Feel free to make your “WHAT’S IN THE BOX?!” jokes now, folks, because in 24 hours I will likely be sick of them.
- Rarity claims that everypony’s dream is to wear a crown and have their coronation day preserved in a stain-glass window for all to see. Cue Pinkie Pie: “Most of my dreams are about frosting!”
- “Whatever it is, I’m sure that it’s nothing to be worried about. (takes one look outside) Oh, no! You should be worried! Very, very worried!”
- “The rest of you could learn a little from my dear friend, Shutterfly.” The gag is pushed into hysterical thanks to Discord grabbing Rainbow Dash as if she’s Fluttershy as he says it.
- “I, for one, found it delightful! Sort of like a one-pony theatre piece, if you will. You really should consider taking it on the road.”
- Discord doesn’t do windows.
Callum Petch, in the concert hall, jumped on your bones.