More Than A Few Reasons to Like Equestria Girls: Friendship Games

The third feature-length film centered on the Equestria Girls spin-off from My Little Pony is about to be released on home video and, well, I have conflicted feelings about it.

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Shout! Kids were kind (evil?) enough to send me a copy of Equestria Girls: Friendship Games that I started to watch with a good deal of scepticism, however that was soon replaced by subtle appreciation.

To be honest, the latest installation is just as deserving of a brutally harsh teardown as it is a positive post, however the former is almost too easy to do and doesn’t in fact, provide any space for the kind of critical thinking that readers of this blog should be engaging in.

Is Friendship Games a bastion of creative innovation and intellectual storytelling? No, but it doesn’t claim to be either and in doing so can drop any pretensions it may have to carry otherwise. It’s a trend that has seeped into televisual entertainment in recent times as the splintering of the audience forces creators to find new ways of attracting viewers. Gravity Falls and Adventure Time fall into this mould and both give more mature viewers plenty of fat to chew on outside of the broadcasts. Equestria Girls isn’t as beholden to such pressures; being produced primarily for the home media market and the result is a rather more light-hearted film that sticks to the simple kind of storytelling that has become all too rare in animated content in the last 15 years.

Many of the comparisons with other contemporary shows that could be levelled at Equestria Girls also aren’t fair. If it were released 10 years ago, it would have been praised for being an innovative feature that brings a whole new level of quality to the direct-to-video market. Considering how such films used to be, Friendship Games is a bastion of quality. Back when animation was even more expensive than it is today, corners were cut in just about every department you can imagine. Disney had a monopoly on theatrical features, and many of the films that were schlepped to kids on video tape were truly awful. I challenge you to watch such classics like any of the Land Before Time sequels, or The Care Bears Movie II, and not be appalled at how any kid would watch it once, let alone multiple times. Friendship Games is a competent feature that stands on its own merits and easily accomodates multiple viewings (I’m simultaneously watching the commentary as I write this and keep being distracted.) Perhaps in light of the original show it seems like a discounted knock-off, yet I would proffer that any spinoff will be cast in a similar light and that it is unfair to compare apples and oranges. Equestria Girls isn’t MLP:FiM so from an objective standpoint, there are few reasons to judge it on the same criteria.

The film also provides value to the audience. Yes, that’s right. Bronies may bristle at such a statement, yet adult fans, for all the many that are out there, are not the primary demographic that the film is targeted at. Kids will form the bulk of the audience, and the release skews to that effect. For every director’s commentary, there is a sing-a-long bonus feature. Does it adequately cater to their entertainment needs? Absolutely!

The original My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic show was exceptionally colourful, almost to the point where it was a bit too saccharine for my tastes. Yet for some reason, Friendship Games didn’t bother me near as much. In fact, the flatness of the visuals and the boldness of the colours were appealing. I put this partly down to the human characters, and the ability to fashion them with clothing that gives them a more varied appearance and not an overwhelming one. The characters themselves are also appealing, and although derivative of the MLP:FiM show, contain many unique traits.

The film also imparts a lesson, which seems to have become taboo sometime since the dawn of the millennium. We’re a long way from the days of ‘Sailor Says’ and other segments that were inserted into cartoons to appease the E/I requirements of the FCC (but were considered unnecessary in just about every other western market.) Yet the stigma against any show that purports to moralise or impart a lesson remains. Friendship Games is primarily about, you guessed it, friendship, and how the social bond between yourself an others is an important aspect of your relationship with the world. The theme isn’t as exposited as you might think, but it is heavily implied throughout. It’s meant to give a positive message, and yes, it’s aimed primarily at the kids in the audience. There isn’t so much a ‘higher purpose’ to the film as there are ‘positive themes.’ All without a hint of romance too!

Listening to the director’s commentary also conveys the rather serious amount of effort that went into the film. When you’re on one side of the curtain, it is rather difficult to remember that there are real people on the other side who make films like this as part of their job. Months and months of work is condensed into an hour an a half, and that makes it exceptionally easy to disparage. The team worked within limitations for sure, but they are artists just like you’d find in every other studio in the world, and they found ways to insert their talents into the film that could easily go unnoticed. If you pay attention to the subtle signs, you will be rewarded.

On the one hand, part of me really dislikes Equestria Girls: Friendship Games. It’s a second sequel to a spinoff to a toyetic show that’s owned by one of the largest corporations that profits from children. That’s a really tough sell in my book, and my opinion with regard to that aspect of the show hasn’t changed. However, Friendship Games did cause me to reconsider the roles and jobs that animation is called upon to perform. It’s a flexible artform that can be critically acclaimed for its ground-breaking innovation, and it can be a musical film about Technicolour girls in high school. I don’t like Friendship Games because of its quality, I like it because it’s good at what it’s supposed to be good at, and that is to entertain the viewer.

I’m decidedly curious to hear what your thoughts on this topic.

4 Comments on “More Than A Few Reasons to Like Equestria Girls: Friendship Games

  1. I don’t know if you’ve seen the second one or not, or if you’ve even watched much of FiM’s fifth season, but as a fan of this show, I’m really in the majority when I say the second one was better, but this one wasn’t bad, though. It wasn’t particularly great, either.

    The reason why I tend to be lukewarm about it is because it’s more average than its predecessor, and the Equestria Girls franchise far more so than anything the series has done. MLP really seems to be in its element when they take a plot or message that may seem to have been done to death in kids’ TV, but infuse a new life into it through unique symbolism, taking full advantage of the fantasy setting the show affords. A good example is the season 5 premiere. How many times have we seen the conformity vs. individuality argument? How many times have we seen it done with Orwell, WWII, Vonnegut, and classical dystopian fiction references, and the loss of self-identity actually having such high stakes that directly implicate the show’s entire world, thereby turning an old message into a legitimately exciting storyline? MLP takes the Aesop formula and brings it to new life by finely intersecting it with the rules of its own world and its great characters in order to make it legitimately entertaining.

    FiM is a tripod. It stands on its writing, its characters, and its setting. EqG partially kicks out the setting leg. However, the second movie (Rainbow Rocks) actually turned out to be surprisingly good because it began to develop the EqG franchise into its own identity separate from the typical high school/fish out of water tropes from the first movie, developed one of the most mediocre characters of the first movie (the villain Sunset Shimmer) into a fan favorite post-reformation (this fandom also happens to absolutely eat up redemptive characters, see Princess Luna), and managed to put in legitimately entertaining villains with screen chemistry.

    However, Friendship Games comes a bit more mixed. While we did get more Sunset Shimmer and much more development of the show’s world, the plot largely felt like a retread of the first film, and the villains of the film absolutely lacked chemistry (there was no comic relief among them, all portrayed the same stuffy personality, and others didn’t get any more than 1 or 2 lines). Going over the same stuff again felt like old hat, with a gimmicky endgame where Twilight basically re-enacted Sunset’s role from the first film (but really gets better the more you think about it). The visuals are a strongsuit, that I credit to the promotional shorts allowing more time and freedom for the animation teams to experiment with these characters in ways they couldn’t have done before.

    As an “entertaining” film, Friendship Games is merely serviceable if you put it up against its predecessor. But a mixed bag doesn’t make rewatch value. If it’s merely an “entertaining” film you’re looking for, Friendship Games might do it for a short while. But if you open yourself up to the possibilities that the rest of the franchise has fulfilled over the past year or so and may continue to fulfill in the near future, Friendship Games may end up as mere background noise. There is plenty of other material in this franchise that will give you more mileage.

    • Hmmm, I haven’t seen the second film, but while researching for this post, I came across a lot of positive reviews for it. I’ll check it out for the sake of comparison. đŸ™‚

      • I will admit, much of the fandom, myself included, was averse to the very idea of the Mane 6 becoming musicians and doing a battle of the bands, but the characterization surrounding the events made it very entertaining to watch.

        You do make a good point about how all three of these films are above average as far as the standard quality of direct-to-video/TV films are. That mainly speaks to the superior effort that the writers and DHX/Vancouver staff put into separating MLP from the typical “cash grab” cartoon. It does make me wonder, however, how much longer this format is going to last.

        The direct-to-video format is largely out-of-date, with many studios not even making mockbusters anymore, and Disney ending its sequel assembly line. Hasbro, however, sticks steadfastly to traditional marketing, and it works in MLP’s case only because it has such a fervently loyal fan following that will buy into it either way (inconsequential to the way the show is marketed, but speaking more to the media’s quality and the resultant word-of-mouth). I wonder if MLP truly is an outlier in this regard or if the direct-to-video format really can be viable in 2015.

        People still go to big-box stores; there’s nothing that can compare to the social experience and actually seeing products upfront, and merely having your product on the shelf is an invaluable marketing opportunity. However, this is the age of Rotten Tomatoes, consumer reviews and discussions, try-before-you-buy (trailers), and digital media that doesn’t require a physical disc. Is the quality of a film or its franchise enough to justify sticking to inevitably dated models?

        • > “Is the quality of a film or its franchise enough to justify sticking to inevitably dated models?”

          Neither is actually a primary motivator. Physical disc sales may have fallen, but they haven’t disappeared over a cliff. The market is still incredibly profitable and will be for a good while yet. Films like the Equestria Girls trilogy may make their bread and butter through disc sales, but they have just as much value on VOD services like Netflix and purchase sites like Amazon so it makes sense to continue making them.

          It all comes down to the studio in question and what they consider the best investment for their money. DisneyToon had their production line stopped, but I would say their particular problems were twofold, namely: A) relatively large budgets, and B) franchises that had run their course (Tinkerbell and Cars-related spinoffs.

          At the end of the day, studios will continue to distribute their content in through any method that can potentially deliver profit.

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