Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ponying Up! (at last!)

It's been a while since I expressed my intention to "take the plunge into the trough" and try the popular IDW comic-book adaptation of MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC.  Before doing so, however, I felt it necessary to view some of the key episodes of the TV series.  Thanks to the magic of YouTube and the helpful suggestions of my friend Mark Lungo, I've now seen enough to essay some comments on... um, the TV series.  (Don't worry, the comics reviews will be on their way soon.)

MLP: FIM turned out to be a pleasant surprise, emphasis on "pleasant."  Essentially, it's a very slicked-up, somewhat more culturally aware reboot of a 1980s toy-based cartoon series (surprise, huh?), bearing approximately the same relationship to its Reagan-era namesake that the Ziegfeld Follies did to run-of-the-mill vaudeville.  That may sound like damning with faint praise, but it really isn't.  The trouble with many of those old chatchka-centered productions was that they did so surprisingly little to make their animated versions appealing in and of themselves.  The original MLP certainly fell into that category: it's tough to imagine doing anything really splashy or innovative with characters with such unimaginative basic designs.  Say what you will about the literary quality of 1980s Transformers episodes, but at least those machine-robot-things looked cool, and it's possible to imagine a talented writer taking those visual stimuli and turning them loose in a really first-rate action-adventure.  (Not that one has appeared yet... sorry, Michael Bay.)

The televised MLP: FIM stories that I've seen thus far -- the two-part pilot story "Friendship is Magic," the two-parter "A Canterlot Wedding," and "The Cutie Mark Chronicles" -- have all been similar in terms of strengths and weaknesses.  Taking several hints (OK, more than a few) from the increased popularity of anime, MLP:FIM quickly accomplishes the first goal of an animated series: it's lots of fun to look at.  The characters are well-designed, the facial expressions are amusing, and the visual effects are often quite remarkable.  With that in mind, I must admit that I actually prefer the comic-book versions of the characters.  The comic-book artists seem to be doing an excellent job of adapting the characters to the demands of telling a story without being locked into the TV show's somewhat more stiff and stylized visual template.


The characterizations of the six "mane" ponies (you knew that I had to go there...) will be tolerably familiar to any fan of Adventures of the Gummi Bears.  That series took the basic Smurfs idea of characters based on single personality traits and added some additional complexity to each character without really straying too far from the basic template.  Thus, we have Twilight Sparkle = brainy, Applejack = tomboy, Pinkie Pie = nutty, Rainbow Dash = brash Peppermint Patty type (at least, I think so), Fluttershy = shy nature girl, Rarity = beautiful egotist. This, I must admit, represents a somewhat wider cross-section of humanity (or should I say, "equine-inity") than do the Glen Gummis.  Wisely, MLP:FIM avoids the trap of relying TOO heavily on six character types by introducing several corralsful of additional ponies, many of whom have their own individual followings among the series' maniacal fan base.  In a more Smurfs-like twist, each pony has a "specialty" indicated by a "cutie mark" on his or her flank.  This apparently is a continuation of a tradition dating back to the original MLP series ("Generation One" or "G1" to the cognoscenti).  I can see this notion possibly becoming a problem as the TV writers run short of ideas and start creating "one-trick ponies" left and right with the carelessness of a Vic Lockman creating "specialist" Beagle Boys.  At least the writers seem to be aware of the potential for trouble; three young ponies calling themselves "The Cutie Mark Crusaders" furnish one of the show's running gags by engaging in a perpetual hunt for the "specialty" that will lift them out of the ranks of the "blank-flanked."  I am sure that there is a lively debate going as to when (if?) the Crusaders will finally get their marks.  (Probably at or around the same time that Springfield is blown up, a la Little House on the Prairie's Walnut Grove, in what I have predicted for years will be the final act of The Simpsons.)

The plotting in the episodes I've watched has been... well, not that bad, but certainly nothing to write home about.  The villains, or, as the MLP:FIM wiki has it, "antagonists" -- since when did the term "villain" become un-PC?! -- tend to kick into "rant-about-my-plan" mode with disquieting suddenness, and the attraction of the stories is created far more by of the flashy, candy-colored visuals than by any particularly imaginative scripting.  Queen Chrysalis, a changeling who is the vil... er, antipony of "A Canterlot Wedding," is featured in the comic-book series' first four-issue story arc, so I'll soon have a bit more of a handle on her. 

Perhaps the most remarkable (and startling) thing about MLP:FIM is its cheerfully pagan worldview!  The natives of Equestria have a literal "ruler-God" in the noble person of Princess Celestia, who is literally responsible for raising the sun each morning.  "Friendship is Harmony" resolves Celestia's millennium-old conflict with her renegade younger sister Princess Luna, a conflict that has the marks of Manicheanism stamped all over it.  The ponies celebrate such holidays as the Summer Sun Festival, Hearth-Warming Eve, and Nightmare Night.  Are you getting the picture?  And I haven't even mentioned Twilight Sparkle and Celestia's use of magic.  To be fair, Twilight can't tap her full magical potential until she performs the decidedly non-ethereal task of making friends with the other "Elements of Harmony."  Still, I can't believe that the show hasn't been more vigorously protested by folks who frown upon things like this.

On balance, MLP:FIM is a very attractive show; I'd even go so far as to say that it's the best animated series I've personally sampled since Kim Possible.  But it will have to go some to rank with the best WDTVA series of the late 80s and early 90s.  Try as the creators might to add complexity and depth to the basic scenario, the world of MLP:FIM is necessarily constricted by the fact that it's a world of, well, little ponies.  Equestria doesn't yet seem to me like a "real place" in the ways that Duckburg, Cape Suzette, or even St. Canard and Dunwyn do.  Hopefully, the comic book will address this issue and give the ponies a chance to strut their stuff on a somewhat broader stage.

1 comment:

Mark Lungo said...

Hey, Chris! After a busy week, I finally have the time to comment on your Pony post. It's good to see your comments!

1. "...we have Twilight Sparkle = brainy, Applejack = tomboy, Pinkie Pie = nutty, Rainbow Dash = brash Peppermint Patty type (at least, I think so), Fluttershy = shy nature girl, Rarity = beautiful egotist."

Your assessments of the characters are accurate, although all of them have spotlight episodes where they transcend their given roles. In particular, Fluttershy can get over her shyness when she needs to, and while Rarity may be an egotist, she's also devoted to her friends (she is the Element of Generosity, after all).

2. "The villains... tend to kick into 'rant-about-my-plan' mode with disquieting suddenness..."

A valid criticism, although some of them (particularly Trixie and Discord) get character development in their return appearances.

3. "Perhaps the most remarkable (and startling) thing about MLP:FIM is its cheerfully pagan worldview!... I can't believe that the show hasn't been more vigorously protested by folks who frown upon things like this."

Well, there was a critical post on a Christian right website, but it's been taken down; I can only find excerpts of it on pro-Pony sites.

4. "Try as the creators might to add complexity and depth to the basic scenario, the world of MLP:FIM is necessarily constricted by the fact that it's a world of, well, little ponies. Equestria doesn't yet seem to me like a 'real place' in the ways that Duckburg, Cape Suzette, or even St. Canard and Dunwyn do. Hopefully, the comic book will address this issue and give the ponies a chance to strut their stuff on a somewhat broader stage."

You don't have to wait for the comic, Chris. Consider that you've seen only five of the 65 (and counting!) TV episodes. I'm sure that if you keep watching (and it sounds like you will), the ponies and their world will gradually become more real to you.