A virtuoso symphony with really bad acoustics: my (way, way late) thoughts on Equestria Girls.

Spoilers ahoy, just in case I’m not actually the last fan of FiM to see Equestria Girls.

Yeah, I actually did put off watching Equestria Girls until just recently.  I think, at some level, I may have been doing so because as long as I didn’t watch it, my worst fears couldn’t be realized.  But as it turns out, the whole thing is hilariously anticlimactic.  For all the hype and all the backlash surrounding it, Equestria Girls turns out to be just okay.

For the team behind FiM to produce something that is “just okay”, you’d think something would have to go horribly wrong.  Well…sort of, and sort of not.  There are many components of the movie that are excellent — some even exceeding the usual quality of the show.  But a few substantial missteps, mainly involving the overall structure of the story, result in a movie that is less than the sum of its parts.

Let’s get into more detail about those parts:

The Characters

Twilight

Equestria Girls is the first time we see Twilight for any substantial length of time post-coronation, so many fans (myself included) were anxious to see how she’d be written.  A sudden extreme shift in character to go along with those new wings would have been exceptionally jarring and just poor form.  I’m happy to say those fears were unfounded.  Twilight neither suddenly transforms into mini-Celestia, nor does she revert to the neurotic shut-in from the pilot or “Lesson Zero” — EqG smoothly continues her character development as the series has, and we get to both chuckle at and sympathize with her insecurities, as well as cheer for her when she puts them aside to handle things.  I was particularly glad to see that Twilight has concerns about her new status as well, including whether she’ll be expected to rule her own kingdom — FiM has occasionally swept such questions under the rug, particularly in earlier episodes, which can disconnect the viewer from the characters a bit.  Fortunately, that isn’t the case here.

Though honestly, not having a wings gag would have just been unacceptable.

[Insert obligatory “morning wing” joke here.]

The other characters are basically unchanged from their standard selves.  This is good, but it also means there’s not a lot to talk about there.

With one exception:

Pinkie Pie

Given that the plot of EqG involves interdimensional travel and Pinkie Pie has had a semi-transparent fourth wall since the series began, there was an opportunity for some pretty great mythology gags.  And damn, did EqG ever capitalize on that.  From her standard loose interpretations of the laws of physics to having an oddly accurate perception of Twilight’s extradimensional origins, Human!Pinkie has some of the best gags in the movie.

Pinkie Pie scoffs at your pathetic "Fourth Wall", puny mortals.

Pinkie Pie scoffs at your pathetic “Fourth Wall”, puny mortals.

So that’s our current characters.  On to the new ones:

Sunset Shimmer

Rebecca Shoichet is by far my favorite singer in this series, and I was eager to hear how she’d perform in an actual voice-acting role.  I was not remotely disappointed.  Sunset Shimmer wears a sign reading “alpha bitch” that is visible (and audible) from the moon, but never quite passes into the territory of self-parody — which means she’s hit the cartoon sweet-spot, as far as I’m concerned.  Thoroughly entertaining.  I really hope Shoichet got to voice at least one Season 4 villain.

Why yes, I do shampoo with all-natural kitten blood, thank you for noticing.

Three animals in one: human, mare, and bitch.

Her visual design is great as well.  Nightmare Moon and Chrysalis were the standard “jet black villains”, Discord’s mismatched design suited his nature, and Sombra had some nice color highlights, but Sunset Shimmer is the first FiM villain with a design that is, for lack of a better word, loud, both in human and Pony form.  It matches her “I’m the center of the world” personality quite well.  Honestly, I’m now kind of disappointed that she isn’t in Season 4.

However, after a thoroughly entertaining final scene, her last few minutes of screen time are decidedly “meh”.  The fact that she turned around and reformed so quickly after being smacked down was neither believable nor interesting, and just made me cringe.  It’s not that her redemption couldn’t have been well-done, but it should have been more of a struggle.

So now it’s time to talk about the other new character:

Flash Sentry

AKA, the proverbial elephant in the room.

When the words “Twilight” and “love-interest” got used in the same sentence, millions of alarms went off in peoples’ heads, including mine.  FiM‘s forays into romance have always either been hilarious in-universe disasters (Rarity x Blueblood) or half actual romance, half running gag (Spike’s infatuation with Rarity).  This is understandable, given the potential unfortunate implications such a move would raise — we are (fortunately) moving into an era in which female leads are expected to be interesting characters in their own right, rather than flat characters whose overriding drive is acquiring a mate.  Breaking the stereotypical My Little Pony image was hard enough without being accused of indoctrinating young girls that their primary concern should be finding a husband.

But realistically, it was highly unlikely that EqG would go that route, given what we’ve seen and heard from the writers in the past.  The more likely bad outcome was that the character would be the standard badly-done “obligatory love-interest”: a character who is completely uninteresting outside of being the subject of the protagonist’s affections, which are completely incidental to the plot anyway.

And if I’m honest, that’s pretty much what Flash is — there’s nothing particularly offensive or bad about him, but he’s just kind of there.  He’s certainly not a particularly interesting character, and it’s hard to imagine how he could be, given his roughly 10 minutes of screen-time.  That said, he’s likeable enough, and he has a few amusing gags, so the movie probably breaks even by having him around.  Still, both Flash and the romance plot are pretty superfluous — very little would be lost if they weren’t present.  And while the Brony in me is actually kind of relieved at that fact, it’s still bad writing.

Wwweeeeeeiiiiiiiiiwwwww

Though he did score some points with me here.

And I’m sorry, but I just feel the need to mention this; he does look enough like Shining Armor that it’s just a little bit creepy.

The Animation

FiM‘s animation quality is one of its strongest points, and Equestria Girls continues down that path — the animation style works basically as well for cartoon humans as it does for cartoon ponies.  That said, there’s nothing particularly new or exceptional as the show goes.  Until Twilight gets to the human world, it would be very easy to believe that one is just watching an episode of the series.  The transformations near the end are a nice display of proverbial fireworks, and it’s on par with the flashiest sequences from the series.  But it’s also “just” on par with the flashiest sequences from the series.  I was somewhat disappointed to see that there wasn’t anything that really went above and beyond the animation in FiM.  At the same time, “the animation is only on par with the excellent animation in the series” is a pretty minor complaint.

One major disappointment for me was the clothing on the Mane Six.  I’d hoped to see the studio that brought us “Suited for Success” give us some really interesting visual designs.  Sadly, the costumes of the other five are more or less pallet swaps of Twilight.  I suppose I’ll have to content myself with fanart to see what sort of crazy ensemble Human!Rarity walks around in daily.  We do get some nice designs from the formal dresses worn by the cast, but that’s only for the last twenty minutes or so, and they didn’t really wow me — YMMV, of course.

And I think that blue guy is looking up AJ's skirt @_@

See all those characters with interesting and varied costume designs? Yeah, they aren’t the main characters.

And since it’s already been mentioned by many people; yeah, I could definitely have done with longer skirts.  I don’t know who they were trying to cater to with those.  Well okay, that’s a lie, I have a suspicion as to who they were trying to cater to — me — but I hope I’m wrong.  Because — among many, many other reasons — that would mean that DHX has some very odd ideas about what I might find attractive (yes, I know this fandom arose from the internet, the point still stands).  It’s certainly not a big deal, but there were a few shots that made me think “I’m not sure how I feel about this.”

Also, seeing smartphones in a cartoon was kind of jarring, but that's more just me.

This whole sequence made me vaguely uncomfortable.

The Music

It’s William Anderson and Daniel Fucking Ingraham.  What did you expect the music would be like?  It’s goddamn fantastic.  Moving on.

Actually, no.  There is more to say than that.  The songs have a substantially more pop/girl-band style than most of the show’s music.  That might put some people off, but unless you despise all pop music with every fiber of your being, you probably enjoyed the music here.  I thoroughly enjoyed “Becoming Popular”, and I thoroughly enjoyed these.  Until 48 hours after the movie, when I still had them stuck in my head.

In an alternate universe, all those six-vocalist groups from the 90's are still being played today, and no one ever complains.

“~Get up, get down, if you- DAMN IT DANIEL INGRAHAM GET OUT OF MY MIND!”

The Writing

The Jokes

Once again,  not much noticeable changes from FiM‘s usual high quality.  As many others have reported, the movie is packed with inside-jokes and references that only fans of the series will get, but they’re subtle enough that they don’t disrupt the general flow of things.  If I had to pick one complaint about the humor, it’s that the “Twilight isn’t used to the human world” jokes start to overstay their welcome — more on that in a second.

Scoots is doing the Chicken Dance, in case you didn't get it either.

It took a few seconds before this one hit me. DHX, have I mentioned recently that y’all are awesome?

The Moral

“A true leader leads by example and inspiration, not by dominating others.”  An excellent and important message, well-delivered.  I know a few adults who should be reminded of this.  No complaints here.

The Story

And here is the proverbial fly in the ointment.

Pacing

If FiM can be said to have one fatal flaw, it’s the pacing.  The otherwise-excellent “Return of Harmony” and “A Canterlot Wedding” had jarringly fast wrap-ups, and “Magical Mystery Cure”…well, that’s probably going to be a whole post in itself.  Suffice to say that one of the most common complaints about it is that it should have been a two-parter.  This is actually one reason “The Crystal Empire” is my favorite of all the two-parters — it doesn’t generally suffer from this problem.

Sadly, problems with pacing plague Equestria Girls as well.  For a movie in which the primary goal of the protagonist is to win back her crown, attempts at winning the crown (by appealing to her peers) only begin in earnest around the 40-minute mark of a 73-minute movie, and that segment of the movie overall feels rushed as a result.

AJ, as usual, keeps a cool head -- the eternal Straight Mare.

“Wait, there’s 33 minutes left in the film and we just finished the exposition!?”

Of course, stuff is happening previously, and it’s not all exposition.  Twilight first has to adjust to being a human and bring the Human!Mane Six back together from their Sunset Shimmer-orchestrated feud, so there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict there.  So if we consider those to be two of the three major conflicts of the movie (along with actually winning the crown), the structure of the story makes more sense.  But in that case, I’d argue that having three sub-plots for a 73-minute movie is too much — there isn’t sufficient time to adequately explore any of them.  This is especially the case since the first sub-plot — Twilight getting accustomed to the human world — is more a gag than an actual plot arc.  It’s funny, yes, but the humor ends up detracting from the narrative, rather than enhancing it.

But still…

But even with all this, I was having a difficult time articulating my problem with the story, other than “the pacing was off.”  Yes, parts felt rushed and others felt drawn-out, but as I said before, that’s been the case for many of the better episodes in the series, and I still enjoyed those.  Why was a flaw that was merely annoying before suddenly crippling here?  I couldn’t say — until I read Reldan’s editorial on princesshood.

This leads me into my view on why, deep down, so many people didn’t feel that the story told by Equestria Girls gelled with them. It’s because at its heart it is just a traditional princess story told straight up, which absolutely flies in the face of the progress made to subvert that trope throughout the run of the show. Twilight begins the movie as a princess with no actual responsibilities, she then appears in a new place where everybody immediately falls in love with her, and everything just works out for her, often times without her taking any direct action at all! (Emphasis mine.)

Sudden Clarity Clarence

Bingo.

Lack of Conflict

I think Reldan’s mistaken in a few of their criticisms of Equestria Girls, but in this matter they’re spot-on — perhaps more than they realize.  Reldan focuses on subverting the princess motif, but there’s more to it than that.  We could live in a world in which the classic princess archetype didn’t even exist, and Reldan’s criticisms would still be valid.  The simple fact is, there just isn’t enough conflict in Equestria Girls for an interesting story.  Rather than one large narrative with with several setbacks, struggles, and obstacles overcome, we have three bite-sized plot arcs, each with less conflict and striving than most 22-minute episodes of FiM.

The Mane Six are no longer friends?  Twilight realizes that Sunset’s behind it, they talk to each other, done.

Snips and Snails trash the room for the formal?  One song later, things are fixed.

Twilight has no support among the student body?  Again, one song later, she’s got everyone behind her (and no, not even a song by Daniel Fucking Ingraham has that kind of power).

Sunset Shimmer circulated embarrassing videos of Twilight?  Well, actually, that one just kind of goes away on its own.

(Also, god that last paragraph makes it sound way worse than it actually is).

Here’s another way to think about this; every two-parter so far (and many a single-episode) has had a point at which things seemed hopeless, or at least bleak (I know there’s a literary term for this moment, but I can’t be arsed to look it up right now).  Nightmare Moon (apparently) shattered the Elements of Harmony in the pilot; Chrysalis beat Celestia in “A Canterlot Wedding”; Celestia “disowned” Twilight in “The Crystal Empire”; Twilight briefly gave up on her friends in “Return of Harmony”.

No, there's no alt-text for this one

brb just took a shot to the feels.

What’s the equivalent for Equestria Girls?  There isn’t one, really, and that says a lot.  You could argue that Sunset Shimmer mind-controlling the school qualifies, but a) that’s more “tense” than “bleak”, and b) it happens with roughly 15 minutes left in the movie, after an hour of things just falling into place for Twilight.

Apart from her difficulties in adjusting to being a human, Twilight never fails or really even struggles at any point during the story, the way she does in the series.  Things just go too well in this story for it to really be engaging.

It’s tempting to see this and shout “Mary Sue!”, but I actually don’t think that’s accurate.  Twilight herself is pretty much as well-written as she is in the series.  The problem isn’t really with her, but rather with the way the world reacts to her.  There was nothing she did that really made me go “that’s out-of-character for Twilight”, or “Twilight was badly-written there”, but the world only ever puts up a token resistance to anything she tries to do.  She’s a well-written character in a poorly-written story.

And that’s kind of indicative of Equestria Girls‘ problems.  For all the great songs, jokes, animation, and characters that inhabit this story, they’re stuck in a narrative framework that just isn’t very interesting.  The end result is sort of like listening to a virtuoso symphony in a place with horrible acoustics — the talent is clearly there, but it’s not being used in a way that lets it really be effective.

After making that analogy, it would have been unacceptable to not use this image.

“I simply cannot work under these conditions!”

It’s a tribute to the talent behind Equestria Girls that even with such a crippling flaw, the movie is still okay.  But as a whole, it’s merely okay — it’s certainly not on par with the series, and it’s far less than the sum of its parts.  And that’s a shame.

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8 Responses to A virtuoso symphony with really bad acoustics: my (way, way late) thoughts on Equestria Girls.

  1. This is a great take on Equestria Girls and pretty much matches my own feelings on it. There’s so much to love about it except for that one little piece that ties it all together – the story. The only thing I’ll add is that unlike the rushed resolutions in the series that can be partially excused due to the format (~40 minutes max screen time for a 2-parter), I can find no excuse to have the same issues crop up in a film that isn’t limited to those same constraints. The benefit of a feature film should be that the story can be told at it’s own pace.

  2. Hsere says:

    Ah, glad to hear you enjoyed it. That line in your article was the place where everything kind of “clicked” for me, so thank you for that.

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