My Little Pony Friendship is Magic 2×01+02: “The Return of Harmony” (2011)

Click here to skip past the introduction to the review proper.

If people had told me a year ago I would become a fan of a My Little Pony television series, and even become a fairly regular contributor to the wiki about the show, I would have laughed in their face and declared them to be insane. That’s an immature and premature reaction from someone with a sizable collection of Disney DVDs who is used to defending their hobby, but an understandable reaction all the same. After all, Disney is one thing; the company may mostly be considered (unfairly, I might add) a peddler of audiovisual babysitting material today, but at least many people have a nostalgic connection to older Disney products, which were/are mostly considered decent family entertainment. My Little Pony is supposed to be for really small children. Specifically, little girls, which is even worse, because we all know “girls-only” programming is absolutely horrible, something all adults can see and admit, regardless of whether they’re male or female. (Not because anything made for girls was inherently stupid, mind you, but because apparently the people producing the majority of girls-only content think their audience likes stupid, stereotypical and soulless stories and characters; see below for elaboration.) Right?

Right. Probably. I mean, I’ve now seen clips of the first, original My Little Pony television series, and while the animation is low-budget, the songs are grating and the characters appear to have no personality whatsoever, at least there seems to be a semblance of plot, danger, tension and adventure. It’s my impression that the My Little Pony franchise had a tolerable, if not decent start into the television world, and became progressively worse every time Hasbro retooled the franchise — worse, and closer to the clichés I associate with “girls-only entertainment”: zero actual plot, cutesy and childish dialogue, no hard edges, no conflict (either external or internal), a mostly or purely female cast obsessed with stereotypical “girly-girl stuff” (makeovers, shopping, dieting, playacting, sleepovers) and nothing else. This is what I would have expected from any My Little Pony film or series a year ago.

Of course, that was before ponies took over the internet. Or at least made friendship-touting incursions into several corners of the internet I frequent regularly. I won’t bore the reader with the details of my conversion; to summarise, I went from “are those pony avatar-sporting MLP evangelisers part of an elaborate exercise in irony?” to “I may as well watch the first episode to see what all the fuss is about” to “holy crap! PONIES ARE AWESOME!”.

So they are. This incarnation, at any rate. While adults clearly weren’t the audience Hasbro had in mind, My Little Pony Friendship is Magic is not a show designed for and exclusively enjoyable by little girls. It doesn’t meet any of the clichés (unfortunate truths?) outlined above. It doesn’t meet many of my quibbles about other modern animated shows either. The series can boast appealing character design; pretty good animation considering it’s all done in Flash; excellent voice acting; catchy songs and a better-than-usual underscore.

What’s more important than these production factors, however: the show has compelling, multidimensional characters. I’m not saying this lightly; even animated series I enjoy, past and present, often only deal in caricatures and stereotypes. Friendship is Magic – of all things, a show that should by all rights be an extended toy commercial with blank slates for characters! – avoids this. Sure, the main ponies belong to certain types and are occasionally put into little boxes. But for most of the series, there is more to them than a one-sentence description: there is character development, and there is conflict. Quite a lot of conflict, some of it external (evil villains and mythological beasts threatening the peace in Ponyville, the location where most of the action is set), but most of it coming from the main ponies and their interactions.
Much has been said by others about the fact that each of the important characters has something of a nervous breakdown at some point during the first season, and that’s certainly intriguing and noteworthy. But the important thing is not that these psychological issues exist, but that they feel earned, because the audience has watched the ponies develop over the course of a season, and was allowed to witness both obnoxious and redeeming idiosyncrasies of their personalities.
I haven’t mentioned that the six main characters are all candy-coloured magical ponies with silly names, and that they are all female. It’s irrelevant. When I think of Twilight Sparkle or Fluttershy or Pinkie Pie, I don’t think of them as ponies or even female first; they’re Twilight and Fluttershy and Pinkie, well-developed characters in their own right, regardless of their species or gender.

^That should suffice as a general introduction for people unfamiliar with the show or the phenomenon. On to the original purpose for this blog post: the long-awaited second-season premiere. I will go into some detail, and I can say up-front that these episodes are not a good starting point. If you’re intrigued, watch the first two episodes of season 1 on youtube, they should be easy to find. If you like their epic fantasy tone, but are otherwise still on the fence, continue with 2×01 and 2×02, which expand upon matters introduced in the pilot. If you don’t like the pilot but are still willing to give the show another shot, at least try “Applebuck Season” (1×04) as well; it was that episode that convinced me the ponies could be worth watching, and it’s one of those character development episodes without an external threat.

The god of chaos has sown discordspoilers below this line.

Like the last paragraph suggests, I was not immediately smitten with the show upon watching the first two episodes. Intrigued, yes, because I thought they showed promise, but I wasn’t hooked. Partly this was because it suffered from the ailment many pilots suffer from: the contributors to the production weren’t quite used to the show yet and unsure what it could and should be, and it shows, with lots of production aspects still a little rough around the edges. But mostly, I think, I objected to the fairly conventional children’s fantasy plot about the magical powers of friendship and forgiveness and single personality traits that defined people’s places in the magical hierarchy. It wasn’t on the same low level as, say, the Care Bears films, and of course it had much more engaging characters (especially in hindsight), but still, there’s a resemblance. So I was a little concerned that the season 2 opener, similarly heavy on mythology and also a two-parter, would be disappointing.

I needn’t have worried. This was definitely better than “Friendship is Magic, parts 1 & 2”. I especially want to commend the visual aspect of the show; it’s never looked better, and the new villain’s introduction is especially stunning. The story in short: Discord, a godlike being who has been encased in stone for well over a thousand years, escapes from his prison and wreaks havoc upon the land. This being a kids’ show, it doesn’t come in the form of death and devastation; rather, Discord loves chaos and loopy mayhem, so he upends the laws of physics (or what passes for them in this show). The absurdity of his alterations (for instance, cotton-candy clouds that rain chocolate precipitation) gives the animators a great opportunity to wallow in the kooky and create some wonderful set pieces and prop gags (like Discord literally drinking a glass of chocolate milk, and then throwing away the left-over liquid).

Queen analogue Princess Celestia calls on our main characters, who already defeated a powerful villain in the original two-parter using the magic of their friendship and the “Elements of Harmony”, to confront Discord. They try… and fail. Discord knows what their game is and sabotages their attempts at collaboration, not only turning the ponies against each other, but turning their Elements against themselves: fashion designer Rarity is supposed to represent the “Element of Generosity”, but she also really likes gemstones. So Discord tempts her with the illusion of a huge diamond, uses a little hypnosis, and presto! — she’s a greedy hoarder who wouldn’t dream of sharing her diamond with anyone else. The other ponies are dealt with in a similar fashion and manipulated into essentially renouncing their Element, which saps their ability – and will – to continue opposing Discord.

Like I said above, I was never entirely on board with the whole magic of friendship thing, and was kind of glad that it wasn’t brought up anymore as season 1 went on. The allocation of which pony is assigned which Element has always seemed a little arbitrary to me, and that hasn’t changed. Still, Discord’s subversion of the Elements is a much better and more innovative implementation of the concept. It also helps that a viewer who has watched all of season 1 knows that the ponies are not defined exclusively by whatever Element they are supposed to represent (and in fact, Discord uses some of their other personality aspects to his advantage).

It’s not perfect; some of the intentional character derailment works well and is a consistent extrapolation of the ponies’ psychological shortcomings (Rarity, Pinkie Pie), while other cases are less convincing (Applejack, Rainbow Dash). I would also have preferred it if Discord hadn’t had to resort to any hypnosis or other overt manipulation, because I don’t like the implication that the characters don’t have to take responsibility for their actions if they can blame it all on the devil and his mind-raping magicks.

I’m not bothered by the fact that Discord may not be a completely innovative villain – he’s a malevolent trickster character, similar to Loki, the Trickster in Supernatural, or Batman’s Joker – , because he’s wonderfully entertaining, and not at all watered down considering what the target audience is. Having the villain be a lover of randomness and (malicious) fun is certainly more interesting than if he’d just wanted to take over the world for no reason beyond lust of power. But if one thing especially disappoints in the second episode of the two-parter, then that it doesn’t add to Discord’s character. He spends most of his time in the second half ignoring or condescendingly talking down to the ponies, which allows them to take him by surprise when they do finally manage to overcome his persuasion (I would have said “spoiler alert”, but c’mon). That’s pretty much exactly how the ponies defeated Nightmare Moon in the pilot, so that was a bit anticlimactic. It would have been more thematically appropriate if they had, in turn, discovered and exploited a psychological weakness of his. Admittedly, there wouldn’t have been time for that, but both episodes felt a little rushed at times, so a three-parter might have fit the epic scope of the story better, anyway.

Despite my misgivings, however, these two episodes really are very enjoyable, so much better than I what imagine similar shows are able to put out, and a promising start to season 2. Still, I’m looking forward to some quieter, more character-building episodes in the future. And if the need arises for another epic, friendship-magic-related story to be told, well, Discord isn’t dead; there’s potential for another two-parter about him, maybe this time with a few flashbacks to how he got imprisoned in the first place, and with him being a lot more careful not to underestimate Twilight and her friends.

Some minor observations:

  • The show doesn’t use many direct pop cultural references to generate humour, which I consider one of its strengths. So I wasn’t thrilled with the second episode’s closing sequence — an almost shot-for-shot remake of the Rebel celebration ceremony from Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). It goes on for far too long, and more important, it is unnecessary. The showmakers should have used the time to loop back to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, or show clean-up in Ponyville, or something. As is, it’s one of the few false notes of the show, exhilarating as it may have been for the crew (and I’m sure some viewers).
  • The first episode’s cold open seemed particularly unnecessary to me, especially in light of how much plot is crammed into the rest of the episodes. While necessary, the re-introduction of the Main Six also wasn’t entirely successful (it emphasises their Elements/primary talents, and thus makes it seem like they regressed to early season 1).
  • It was never resolved, but I certainly hope the Cutie Mark Crusaders had nothing to do with awakening Discord. Otherwise, we’d have to assume that there had never been any arguments anywhere near that statue for over a thousand years…
  • Proponents of the “Celestia is a dictator” theory/meme should like this episode. It’s implied she totally is a cruel tyrant, having deprived Equestria of the awesomeness of chocolate rain (twice!).
  • Discord’s voice actor is John de Lancie. I’ve only watched a handful of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, so I’m not very familiar with his work as Q and can’t compare the two characters. Still, it’s kind of cool that a show like this can snag a geek icon like him (and that it would even bother is even more remarkable!).

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