I wasn’t terribly impressed initially by the first My Little Pony Equestria Girls movie, but the second movie, Rainbow Rocks, impressed me enough to raise my opinion of that first effort. With My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games, the series reaches a natural conclusion, with the franchise turning out to more about Sunset Shimmer than about transforming the main characters from the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series into teenage human girls at high school. My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games falls somewhere between the first and second Equestria Girls movies: not quite as good as Rainbow Rocks, but still better than the first effort and good enough to justify continuation of the franchise somehow.
After the events of Rainbow Rocks, the kids at Canterlot High are preparing for their next big challenge: the annual Friendship Games against their rivals at Crystal Prep, in which Canterlot has always ended up on the losing side. However, this year Canterlot has the power of magic to boost their spirits, but although Sunset Shimmer was a master of magic in Equestria, she remains uncertain how magic works in this strange new world. Meanwhile, the Equestria Girls’ version of Twilight Sparkle makes her appearance: a Crystal Prep student more interested in science than the Friendship Games (or even friendship as an abstract concept), and whose investigations seem to draw her ever closer to the magic at Canterlot High. Things start going wrong rapidly when the games get off to a rocky start and Twilight’s investigations seem to strip away the magic from Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie. Although she’s out of her league (and unknowingly confronting the machinations of the venal Crystal Prep principal Abacus Cinch), it’s up to Sunset Shimmer to figure out what’s going on and, ultimately, prevent another catastrophe from befalling Canterlot High and Crystal Prep alike.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has always held out forgiveness and redemption as an incredibly powerful and cleansing force from its premiere episode and throughout several prominent episodes in its run. In the Equestria Girls franchise, that force is made manifest in Sunset Shimmer, who began the series as a villain in the first movie and grew to be a true friend to the other Pony-analogues in the second. With My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games, her transformation becomes complete as she steps up to be a legitimate hero in her own right, becoming perhaps the most powerful vehicle yet for the series’ message of friendship. While Sunset Shimmer was largely the beneficiary of the redeeming magic of friendship in the first two movies, her challenge in My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games is to prove that she has fully internalized those lessons. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that she has, which makes her an extraordinary and unique character within this rebooted My Little Pony franchise. The transformation is also clear in the performance of Rebecca Shoichet as Sunset Shimmer, who has moved from a vintage mean girl to a strong, assertive character in her own right. There is a Japanese proverb that the best way to thank your teacher is to surpass them; with My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games, Sunset Shimmer ultimately gives beautiful thanks to the kids at Canterlot High and to the Pony Twilight Sparkle for their lessons in the power of friendship.
However, I might argue that the reasons for success of this movie as part of a trilogy may also be the root cause of its flaws as a standalone story. Mostly, My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games feels a whole lot like the first movie, which itself felt largely like a rehash of the two-part premiere episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The entire story feels just too familiar, and while the first movie could fill time by introducing us to the Canterlot High equivalents of the Mane Five from Equestria, this movie’s focus on Sunset Shimmer means that the overall story feels a bit padded. It is painfully clear what is going on very early, and the fact that it takes Sunset Shimmer so long to realize it just ends up feeling more like an effort to stretch the movie to feature length. The animation is at least as good as the other movies, if not a little better, but the songs in this movie don’t quite reach the sonically addictive qualities of Rainbow Rocks.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack for My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games yields a sharp, clear, high-definition image mated to a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that brings out sonic details in the dialogue and the music nicely. There are also a raft of strong bonus features that are icing on the cake. The commentary track features director Ishi Rudell, Hasbro executive director Brian Leonard, scriptwriter Josh Haber, songwriter Danny Ingram, consulting director Jayson Thiessen, and art director Rebecca Dart. While there are a few moments of dead air in the commentary, the group is fun to listen to as the chronicle the challenges and victories in making the movie. Deleted scenes are presented in animatic form, including one cut song that is a wonderful duet between Sunset Shimmer and the Equestria Girls Twilight Sparkle as they sing about their feelings of alienation. Plot changes meant the scene had to be cut, but the song and the performance are good enough that its inclusion as a bonus feature is most welcome. All the new Equestria Girls shorts are also included, which do set up a few minor elements in the movie but are mostly just entertaining. Finally, there are a handful of sing-along music videos.
Overall, My Little Pony Equestria Girls: Friendship Games is a solid addition to the Equestria Girls franchise, even if it feels overly familiar and a little padded in its earlier portions. The way it provides a natural conclusion to a large-scale character arc easily redeems many of its flaws, especially in the way it delivers its emotional payload in the conclusion. Sunset Shimmer’s saga has turned out to be a wonderful long-form story, and seeing it through to its end is more than enough reason to give all three of the My Little Pony Equestria Girls movies a spin.