Review: "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic" Season 1: Pony Up for This One
The late, great blues guitar player Albert Collins once said, “Simple music is the hardest music in the world to play. And blues is simple music.” The basics of a 12-bar blues and a minor pentatonic scale are simple, but “simple” does not mean “easy.” There’s a gigantic and somewhat ineffable gap between understanding those concepts and using them to create something indelible, as artists like Collins, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, or John Lee Hooker have.
Transplanting this observation to television animation explains why the Hub’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is such a superlative show, as well as why explaining its success is so challenging. At its heart, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is an extremely simple show of extremely simple stories, and one can point to plenty of other shows with the same objective qualities but which are subjectively far inferior products. Regardless, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is indeed an exceptionally excellent show, and sitting down with the newly released season 1 DVD set shows that it has been so since the beginning.
The two-part series premiere, “Friendship is Magic,” does a stellar job at introducing the show’s major cast of six ponies: the bookish Twilight Sparkle, the tomboy Applejack, the boisterous speed demon Rainbow Dash, the bashful Fluttershy, the fashionista Rarity, and the offbeat party animal Pinkie Pie. On the surface, the story is a pretty standard fantasy plot involving ancient prophecies and an unlikely set of heroes banding together to save the day, where each member of the band proves her individual strength to defeat the many challenges they face along the way. It’s been done a thousand times, and too often it has been done badly or failed to rise above mediocre. This makes the near-perfect execution of “Friendship is Magic” all the more remarkable because it really doesn’t deviate too far from the formula. There is exceptional visual creativity, but the characters are quite simplistic; most of the plot twists are extremely predictable; and the denouement is visible almost right from the start. A simple story, but simple stories are the hardest ones in the world to tell. The two-part premiere is emblematic of what the show is, and also why it’s so difficult to analyze or critique.
The problem is that every single one of the 24 subsequent episodes is also emblematic of what the show is. No episode ever deviates far from formula, and nearly every episode has a pat moral that’s visible sometimes before the opening credits have rolled.
I could point to a lot of different things that I like about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The characters are enormously appealing, from their wonderfully expressive designs to the delightful voice actors who bring them to life. Each individual pony is also very distinctly defined, and all of them have a simple archetypal defining characteristic that reveals interesting nuance and shading. The differences between the ponies also allows them to spark off each other in interesting ways, and many of the morals of the individual episodes center on how their unity despite their differences leads to their mutual success. The show doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, and in some ways this allows it to punch through a barrier because it subverts your expectations by absolutely not subverting your expectations. It is exactly what it seems to be, but it’s all played out expertly enough that one can still feel refreshed after watching an episode, just as you can feel catharsis from that one expertly played blues lick that’s really just three notes.
The moral lessons are delivered to be sweet but not saccharine–an extremely fine line to dance around and one that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic never ever trips over–and they are also delivered with much charm and good humor. That last bit is especially important in my eyes: too many shows aimed at girls or younger audiences forget to be funny, but My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic consistently musters some solid laughs out of every episode. For that matter, the show is also not afraid to get a little dark and scary, as in the season premiere or the episode “Bridle Gossip” that centers on a mysterious newcomer to the town of Ponyville. It’s exceptionally pleasing to see how the show defuses these scarier moments through laughter and understanding. A trip through a scary forest is made palatable when Pinkie Pie advocates examining what scares you and then laughing at it, while the mysteries of “Bridle Gossip” are dispelled in the light of knowledge.
Lots of other shows for kids have the same aims and aspirations, but none of them is quite as effortlessly charming and appealing as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It’s the Michael Jordan or B.B. King of kids’ TV shows: the mark of its towering, unparalleled mastery is the way they can make it look so easy and effortless. The 26 episodes spread over these four DVDs are superlative entertainment, entirely validating the show’s reputation for winning over audiences of all ages and genders.
I’ll skip a full episode listing since the Internet era means there are better, more exhaustive resources for that. It’s impossibly hard to single out any one episode as being especially good over any of the others. As I worked my way through this set, I kept thinking, “Oh, THIS episode is really iconic: I can use it to encapsulate everything that the show does well.” If pressed, I’d say my favorite episode is “Over a Barrel,” which pits the ponies of a frontier town against a herd of buffalo, since the ponies had inadvertently planted an apple orchard over the buffalo’s traditional stampeding ground. The episode turns in a more sensitive and less violent parable for the American West, but I am most impressed that the show not only managed to find a BS&P-friendly substitute for shooting irons in the episode’s climax, but made that substitute pivotal to the episode’s inevitable friendly resolution. It’s a glorious trick that makes its little morality play funny and winning without drowning in sweetness. I’m also quite partial to “Sonic Rainboom,” since watching Rainbow Dash pushing the envelope to break the Sonic Rainboom barrier is so tremendously inspirational that it becomes totally understandable why macho military types would be willing to wear My Little Pony morale patches.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has gotten two “soccer mom” DVD releases so far (with a third released concurrently with this set), and this season 1 set is an Amazon.com exclusive. The quality of the show alone would make the set one of the best buys of the year, but Shout! Factory has done their usual superlative job in assembling and presenting the four DVDs in it. The anamorphic widescreen presentation is excellent, but with modern digital animation it would be news if it wasn’t. The DVD also comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack; I’d have preferred a full 5.1 Dolby Digital for higher fidelity sound and music, but there are certainly no complaints about the quality of the soundtrack we have. Disc 4 contains two sing-alongs, several pony profiles, and printable coloring sheets, but the real prize bonus feature to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic‘s many fans will be the audio commentary tracks for both parts of “Friendship is Magic,” “Winter Wrap Up,” and the season finale “The Best Night Ever.” The regular participants are Hasbro Studios’ Brian Lenard and Robert Fewkes; supervising director Jayson Thiessen; director James Wootton; and voice actors Nicole Oliver, Cathy Weseluck, Andrea Libman, and Tabitha St. Germain. They are occasionally joined by songwriter Daniel Ingram and art director Ridd Sorensen. Notable for her absence is show creator and first season executive producer Lauren Faust, even though her fingerprints are all over the show and she’s named quite a few times during the commentary tracks. Her absence is keenly felt, but the commentary tracks are still informative and entertaining. My only minor gripe is that it can be a little confusing to tell who’s saying what because of the number of participants.
I must admit that before sitting down with this set, I had only limited familiarity with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I had watched episodes sporadically and always liked what I saw, but after sitting down with a big chunk of it, I can definitely understand why the series has inspired the maniacal fandom that it has. My almost complete inability to explain why the show is as good as it is remains slightly baffling, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Season 1 is top-drawer material from beginning to end, easily vaulting into one of the top cartoons on the air today and definitely becoming a contender for one of this era’s real classics.