Film Review: “My Little Pony: The Movie”

The 1980s are well-known for being a time of unprecedented mass marketing to American youth. Every toy I can remember playing with also had its own tie-in breakfast cereal, half-hour television show, bed sheets and more. But entertainment aimed at kids wasn’t all sugary sweet, and as reflected in the current popularity of “Stranger Things” and “It,” some of it was downright traumatizing.

 

I’m not just referring to the time before the PG-13 rating where children saw little monsters explode in “Gremlins” and a human heart ripped out in “Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom” — beloved characters from “Transformers” died, the leader of the “G.I. Joe” team went into a coma and poor Dorothy encountered a terrifying headless witch in “Return to Oz.” Feature films played by different rules than TV cartoons, and the adults who scripted the expanded versions took that opportunity to ramp up the drama.

Based on what I’d seen in the ‘80s and Lauren Faust’s 2010 makeover, “Friendship is Magic,” my expectations for “My Little Pony: The Movie” were full of bubbles and rainbows along the same lines as the explosion of glitter and music of last year’s “Trolls.” That film showed it was possible to keep things relatively positive and fun for 90 minutes without veering into unnecessarily disturbing territory for the sake of being like Pixar (who have become masters of wrenching advanced emotions out of small children at this point), and was far better than it had any right to be given the almost non-existent source material. But in keeping with the spin-off movies from the decade in which “My Little Pony” originated, things got dark and scary pretty quick.

Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) and her fellow ponies Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Pinky Pie (Andrea Libman), and Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain) are as bright and colorful as the world they live in, but preparations for their big Friendship Festival are disrupted by black clouds and the ominous ships that emerge from them, revealing villain Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt, “The Devil Wears Prada”), a purple unicorn who emits a destructive force from the stump of her broken horn. She turns the other princess ponies to stone, steals their magic and sends Twilight Sparkle and her friends fleeing for their lives. A few musical numbers aside, they spend the remainder of the film in a nearly constant state of mortal peril.

Sending happy characters into one dark and unwelcoming environment after another makes sense in terms of visual contrast and drama, but resulted in a cumulatively oppressive atmosphere as the movie went on. While the band of pirates (lead by the awesome Captain Celaeno, voiced by “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Zoe Saldana) and seahorses they encounter lead to friendly alliances (Uzo Aduba from “Orange is the New Black” is unmistakable in her role as Queen Novo), Twilight Sparkle and company enter each new situation in a state of fear and confusion, and usually after a near-death experience (or in anticipation of another). By the time the somewhat goofy but violently powerful big bad Storm King (Liev Schreiber, “Spotlight) shows up, the audience has earned more relief than the film has provided, and heaping on more darkness and destruction was too much at that point.

The message “My Little Pony” carries is a solid one, and the story it tells is valuable. We’re living in times where even adults struggle understand what causes evil behavior, and kids — who are full of questions — deserve honest answers. The reason why Tempest Shadow does what she does is adequately explained, and the ever-present theme of friendship that serves as the backbone of all stories in this franchise is given impressive depth here (without resorting to the old “dead parents” chestnut that remains a constant of PG-rated adventures). While I applaud “My Little Pony” as one of the few decent family flicks 2017 has managed to produce, I’m disappointed in its choice to pay homage to the scarier aspects of ‘80s kiddie flicks instead of taking the opportunity to do the job better.

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Wed, 2017-10-18 11:44am

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