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"My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic": There Is Magic Somewhere in Here

by on February 29, 2012

There is nothing very magical about My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic except this: It is what every show of its type should be. And that is something so rare that it is very magical indeed.

The series is a revamp of the old 1980s cartoon, and it carries what I suppose is the same moralizing attitude as its predecessor, being about a group of ponies who embody and practice the virtues of niceness and cooperation and cheerfully inane friendship. In the “magical land” of Equestria there dwell three tribes of ponies (Earth ponies, flying Pegasus ponies, and magical unicorn ponies) under the benevolent eye of a magical princess. These ponies live in harmony with each other, which still doesn’t prevent them from falling into mild conflicts that have to be sorted out and then subsumed under a tidy little lesson. It’s a formula beloved by non-sectarian moralists of the modern temper, who usually develop and realize it into saccharine little Sunday School exercises that dull the spirit and rot the teeth.

Thank goodness, then, for Lauren Faust and her collaborators, who know that when life hands you great lumps of sugar there’s nothing to do but scare up some lemon juice.

It is very hard to describe what the series does so right and so well. To describe a typical episode is to entrap oneself in some very boring and obvious toils. Take, for instance, the episode “The Last Roundup.” In that one, the Earth pony Applejack goes off to the grand Equestrian rodeo, carrying the hopes and expectations of her friends that she will return with a clutch of blue ribbons. When she doesn’t return those friends have to track her down, and find her working in a cherry orchard. Eventually they drag the truth out of her: she failed to win any first place prizes, and too embarrassed to bring the bad news back, has elected to stay away until she could return with some much-needed prize money. Cue episode-ending moral about how her friends wouldn’t care if she came in “fiftieth.”

That story could be insufferable, and has undoubtedly been told lots of time before in very insufferable ways. Here, though it unfolds with invincible inevitability, it is entirely winning. Why?

You could say it’s because of the characters, who are so vibrant that you care about them even when theyr’e trapped in formula. But the characters themselves aren’t much above cliché, as they each embody a character type. Applejack, for instance, is the blunt, energetic, strong-minded tomboy, just as Fluttershy is the bashful, sweet-tempered naïf and Rarity is the vivacious and slightly vain fashionista. Nor can you say it’s because of the jokes sprinkled along the way. The episode’s action climax comes in a bit of slapstick that explicitly invokes I Love Lucy‘s most famous sketch. But there is no spot in the new series where one can lay a finger and say “Aye, here is where it subverts the formula,” for there is no subversion in it at all. In this regard, the series cuts equally against the modern taste for irony and cynicism, which, rebelling against the moralists, tries to turn the old lessons inside out. It would have been very easy to sacrifice the ponies to mockery in order to make them entertaining. But this the producers have also resisted.

The show’s secret, I think, is that it takes it takes its moralizing mission very seriously–so seriously that it can have a lot of silly fun while still imparting the old lessons. Love, courage, friendship, and respect for others are serious things, so serious that they will survive teasing and exaggeration. It works for the same reason that a first-rate fairy tale works: it makes its world alive and exciting by making it grotesque–even sweetly grotesque–and by making it thus vibrant it makes the lessons vibrant also. When a river dragon loses one of its glorious moustaches the poor creature falls into paroxysms of despair. It’s a very silly dragon to feel its loss so deeply, and so we laugh at it; but the ponies take it seriously, and ultimately we take it seriously too, for silliness is only a matter of degree. The resulting lesson in charity–one of the ponies sacrifices part of her own tail to repair the dragon of its loss–makes a deeper thrust at the audience, for charity also involves taking others seriously, even when we think they are being silly. It’s a very cunning tactic.

It also doesn’t hurt that the show is bright and beautifully rendered with lots of charming details, from the ponies’ elaborate coiffures to the gingerbread houses and trains.

The DVD My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic: The Friendship Express comes with five episodes: the two-part “Friendship Is Magic”, “Over a Barrel”, “Hearth’s Warming Eve”, and “The Last Roundup.” It also comes with an episode of Pound Puppies, which is similarly entertaining–and more appealing to boys–with its marriage of a dogs’ eye view of life with a campy parody of POW-camp drama. (Listen carefully to Rene Auberjonois’ performance as the Col. Klink stand-in; he even mimics Werner Klemperer’s sing-song inflections.) There are also some short profiles of the lead ponies and a sing-along music video.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a very girly show, but with its plenitude of action and humor it is also a show that can appeal even to its target audience’s brothers and parents.

The opposite of everything good in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic can be found in Nickelodeon Favorites: Dance to the Music. This 6-episode collection of Nickelodeon shorts is supposedly built around a music/dance theme, but as is usual with these things, the thread is more notional than real; often, the presence of music is only a plot point. The antics are as you’d expect from the Nick preschool lineup: boring, obvious, and educational in a way that only the educrats who made money by consulting on the shows could pretend actually imparts anything worthwhile. For the record, represented shows include Dora the Explorer, Team Umizoomi, Bubble Guppies, Go Diego Go, The Wonder Pets, and Ni Hao, Kai Lan.

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