I wasn’t impressed by the first My Little Pony Equestria Girls movie, and the decision to elevate Twilight Sparkle to an alicorn Princess with her own kingdom left me equally non-plussed. So I was quite pleasantly surprised to find how much I enjoyed My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks, and that this latest My Little Pony Friendship is Magic movie even managed to partially justify those earlier plot changes that I found so questionable. My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks is almost as sweet and charming as the best episodes of the series, finding new and interesting ways to expand on the show’s themes of friendship. Having quite a few rousingly entertaining musical numbers certainly doesn’t hurt.
While the first Equestria Girls movie was set after the end of season 3, this movie is set after the end of season 4, with Twilight Sparkle in her own kingdom as a Princess of Equestria. Back in the “human” world of the Equestria Girls, the equivalents of Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie have formed a band called the Rainbooms, with the strange side-effect of sprouting pony ears and long ponytails when they get into the groove. Meanwhile, the newly reformed Sunset Shimmer still finds herself ostracized and untrusted by everyone but the Rainbooms at Canterlot High, despite her best efforts to show she’s turned a new leaf. Enter a trio of more Equestria exiles: the sirens Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk, who call themselves the Dazzlers and head to the school after detecting the traces of Equestrian magic left behind by Twilight Sparkle’s visit. The trio’s plan is to use their vestigial powers of musical mind control to spur a battle of the bands, with the ensuing discord and negativity among the student body creating a feedback loop that will give them ever more power to conquer the world. Once the Mane Five and Sunset Shimmer realize what’s happening, they find a way to contact Twilight Sparkle, who makes her way back to Canterlot High to help her friends. The Battle of the Bands rapidly becomes literal, with nothing less than the fate of the entire world at stake.
As with much of later My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks relies more heavily on continuity, making it less accessible to newcomers. However, this also means that My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks can dispense with much of the exposition and re-establishment of characters that so bogged down the first Equestria Girls movie. Relying on continuity also means it can build quite fruitfully on the outcome of that movie by giving Sunset Shimmer a real redemption story arc that is far more satisfying and thorough than her last-act repentance at the end of Equestria Girls. The gag of people accidentally reminding her of how horrible she used to be grows increasingly threadbare as the movie goes on, but Sunset Shimmer’s struggle to stay positive in the face of consistent rejection is moving and real. It also provides the framework for another wonderful lesson in the power of friendship to defeat negativity and selfishness that’s organic and genuine.
Like the very best episodes of My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, the denouement of the movie will probably be visible from the very start, but its predictability does nothing to diminish that denouement’s power. If the first Equestria Girls movie was a straight rehash of the series premiere, Rainbow Rocks uses Sunset Shimmer as a fun house mirror of Twilight Sparkle to put a unique spin on the same situation. This gives the scenario surprising new life and power despite its familiarity, and also does much to put a distinct stamp on the Equestria Girls branch of the franchise. In fact, the sensitivity that Rainbow Rocks exercises with Sunset Shimmer even manages to temper my small disappointment at the thin characterization that the Sirens get. Their two-dimensionality becomes less of a flaw and more of an opportunity for further exploration in this mirror universe that I’m suddenly more interested in seeing.
Sunset Shimmer’s journey to redemption also does much to support Twilight Sparkle’s own journey as a Pony Princess. That role frames both Twilight and Sunset’s story arcs as a struggle with the weight of expectations, driven by their own insecurities and in the way their Canterlot High friends treat them. That struggle provides an interesting wrinkle on the burden of Twilight’s new role in ways that I think the show has been less successful in exploring. It also makes her establishment as someone senior from her peers a bit more credible, especially as it establishes a relationship between Sunset Shimmer and Twilight Sparkle that neatly mirrors the relationship that Twilight Sparkle has with Princess Celestia. That relationship allows both characters to grow and learn, while also making them excellent vehicles for the movie’s morals.
Rainbow Rocks goes bigger than its predecessor in a number of different ways, all of which yield handsome returns. Rainbow Rocks features 11 original songs, many more than the original Equestria Girls movie, but all of them are integrated much better into the narrative making Rainbow Rocks a much better musical (as opposed to a movie that has musical numbers interrupting it periodically). With one notable and very deliberate exception, the songs are all good and several are excellent, including the bubble-gum pop of the opening and closing numbers and the slinky and seductive come-on of the Dazzler’s song-spells. Even the one bad song in the movie (which serves as a plot point) is an amusing demonstration that it takes extremely talented musicians and performers to deliberately craft music that sounds spontaneously bad. The real highlight is the climactic musical number that cleverly interweaves Dazzler and Rainboom themes and musical styles, mirroring their ideological face-off in a more visible musical form. It’s a genuinely brilliant sequence that beautifully illustrates how the best musicals use song and action to give voice to emotions too powerful to convey with only words.
The movie also gooses its animated sequences in subtle ways from the TV show or the earlier movie. Equestria Girls had much bigger and longer crowd scenes than an average episode of My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, but Rainbow Rocks does even more, most visibly in its creative use of depth-of-field, selectively blurring out elements in the background or foreground to give a greater sense of depth and dimensionality (like how Aria’s hand in the screenshot at left is blurred compared to her face). It may not be something you notice consciously, but it does make you feel like the animation is better even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. It’s also a neat update to Disney’s classic multi-plane camera effects for the digital animation world. The candy-colored palette also dovetails nicely with the natural exaggeration that comes with movie musicals.
Rainbow Rocks arrives in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with a digital copy (iTunes and iOS compatible). The movie looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray, with a full 1080p video and 5.1 DTS soundtrack. The Blu-ray also comes with a nice set of bonuses, the best of which is the feature commentary track featuring Hasbro Studio’s VP of Development Mike Vogel, Hasbro Studios Executive Director Brian Lenard, scriptwriter Meghan McCarthy, and co-directors Jayson Thiessen and Ishi Rudell. While there a few dead spots in the running time and it is very difficult to tell all the male voices apart from each other, the commentary track is fun and informative and definitely worth a listen if you enjoyed the movie. Additional bonuses include 3 karaoke sing-along videos and the full set of 8 delightful prequel short films that Hasbro Studios did in the run-up to the movie. My personal favorite has to be “Music to My Ears,” which showcases the important supporting character DJ Pon-3, showing what the world looks like to her when her headphones are on:
The best thing I can possibly say about My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks is that it reminds me of why I loved My Little Pony Friendship is Magic in the first place. Its effortless charm mixed with catchy music and a heartwarming lesson nicely freshens up the franchise and proves that this pony has a lot of life in her.
NOTE: A manufacturing defect in the DVD copy included in the combo pack creates a problem in playback. Shout! Factory is offering a trade-in program to replace defective copies with corrected ones.