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.
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.