A common theme in many of my reviews for My Little Pony Friendship is Magic and the Equestria Girls spinoffs are that a lot of the stories seem strikingly similar, playing out infinite variations on a lot of the same themes of the power of friendship and the pathways to redemption. It’s a wonderfully optimistic view of the world and a message that needs to be heard today more than ever, and I’m growing to think that the repetitions of the themes are one of the series’ strengths rather than something to be critical of. I had compared My Little Pony Friendship is Magic to blues music when reviewing the show’s first season, and the comparison is especially apt because both are able to find infinite ways to work within very tight constraints to express the same themes. So it’s absolutely not intended as a criticism to say that My Little Pony: The Movie will feel very familiar to fans of the series.
At the start of My Little Pony: The Movie, Equestria is preparing for the first annual Friendship Festival, but the celebration comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of Tempest Shadow, a unicorn with a broken horn who invades Equestria under the orders of the sinister Storm King. The magical Pony Princesses who protect Equestria all fall before Tempest, except for Princess Twilight Sparkle, who sets off with her friends (Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Applejack, plus Spike the dragon) in search of aid. The journey takes the six (plus one) far from Equestria and into strange new lands as they search for “the hippos” that Princess Celestia sent Twilight Sparkle to seek.
If you’re at all familiar with My Little Pony Friendship is Magic, many of the plot twists that ensue won’t really be much of a surprise. The Ponies meet numerous new characters once they go beyond the boundaries of Equestria; in addition to Tempest Shadow (and her boss the Storm King and her minion Grubber), they meet Capper, an unctuously charming cat with an agenda of his own; the airship skipper Captain Celaeno and her band of pirates relegated to delivering the Storm King’s packages; and Princess Skystar and Queen Novo who…well, that would be telling. The big surprise will be the number of non-Pony characters in the cast, but it will not be a surprise to learn that not everyone is what they seem at first glance, and that the best way to eliminate your enemies is to turn them into your friends. It’s all familiar stuff, seen numerous times since the series premiere, and yet it’s still as charming and heartwarming as ever. It’s true that fans will never doubt the bond between Twilight Sparkle and the rest of her friends (even when the movie seems to hinge on a schism in their relationship), but that’s a minor blip in a movie that brings the best of the series into a big-screen presentation. The variations on the show’s usual themes all boil down to applying them to new characters and settings, but if anything, the introduction of more non-Pony characters makes the franchise’s themes of friendship even more universal and makes a serviceable parable that the current world could use.
My Little Pony: The Movie certainly takes advantage of its much bigger canvas (and budget), yielding animation production values that ensure it can compete with other offerings from major studios. Equestria has never looked sharper or more colorful and the Ponies themselves get a nice bump in animation quality, but the real “wow” moments come when the Ponies leave Equestria for parts unknown. Capper’s home of Klugetown is wonderfully dingy and seedy, with ugly angular buildings putting it in sharp constrast for the bright colors and curves of Equestria.
The movie also repeats the show’s convention of having several musical numbers, with the real showstoppers being the Latin-tinged “I’m the Friend You Need” (where Capper sings and dances his way through town to convince the Ponies to trust him) and “One Small Thing,” where Pinkie Pie and Princess Skystar make friends. The latter is anchored by Shannon Chan-Kent and Kristen Chenoweth, one of many guest stars that acquit themselves well. Emily Blunt is marvelous as Tempest Shadow, lending a sense of quiet menace to serve as the movie’s main antagonist for much of its running time. Taye Diggs is enjoyable enough as the thoroughly untrustworthy Capper that one wishes he had a bit more to do in the movie; the same would go for Zoe Saldana’s Captain Celaeno. Michael Peña mugs and jokes as Grubber, Tempest’s lead henchman (or hench-hedgehog), though he wears out his welcome a little too quickly by feeling a little too one-note. Indeed, the movie might even suffer from adding a few too many supporting characters and subplots than it really needed, and while they lend plot twists (and running time) to the film, one wishes they could either contribute more or have been cut from the film. The cast from the TV show return to voice the main characters, which is as it should be, and if I haven’t noted recently how skilled they are at bringing the Ponies to life, I can remedy that now by saying they easily stand up toe-to-toe with the rest of the talent in the movie.
The home video release of My Little Pony: The Movie comes in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack with a digital copy as well. Unsurprisingly, the movie looks terrific and sounds in high-definition, and I appreciate that all the bonus features were included on the DVD as well as the Blu-ray. Those bonuses include a deleted scene (one of the alternate openings mentioned by executive producer Meghan McCarthy); a fun new “Equestria Girls” short; a “Baking with Pinkie Pie” cupcake recipe video; two “making of” featurettes focusing on the cast and the settings; and a music video for “I’m the Friend You Need” that’s close to a third “making of” featurette with all the behind-the-scenes (non-singing) footage in it.
I’m not sure that My Little Pony: The Movie will win over any new converts to the series, or even convince skeptics to try it if the show didn’t manage to do it on their own merits. However, for the show’s many fans, the movie will be a delightful, if familiar, experience.