Friday, September 20, 2013

A Rare Gem

* SPOILERS COMING *

Thanks to the (increasingly-taken-for-granted) wonders of YouTube and iTunes, I've now watched all 65 of the existing episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  Some general thoughts about the series immediately come to mind:

1.  The series does an amazing job of making familiar plots seem fresh and newly enjoyable.  This speaks well of the quality of the writers, artists, and voice actors working on the series, but I do wish that the show would take more chances from a thematic standpoint, and that the creators would have the courage to follow their own instincts more consistently.  A number of the "innovations" (e.g., the two-part "epic adventure" "The Crystal Empire" that opened season three) were pretty clearly driven by the demands of the fan base that the show be given more gravitas, and you can often tell when the creators' hearts are (or aren't) in "on-demand" eps like these.

2.  The fans probably have some right to be concerned about the direction of the series following the "promotion" of Twilight Sparkle to the role of a winged alicorn princess in "Magical Mystery Cure," the most recent new episode.  This isn't so much because of the promotion itself as it is because the changeover was effected in such a ham-hooved fashion -- a 22-minute episode with seven, count 'em, SEVEN songs and barely enough time to develop a convincing rationale for Twilight's new gig.  Between "Cure" and the direct-to-video movie Equestria Girls, which saw the "Mane 6" ponies whisked off to the human world and transformed into human teenagers (aka "AAAAGHHH! HIDEOUS HOOFLESS MUTANTS!!") who just happen to be "but simply perfect" as subjects for a new toy line, the big worry is that Hasbro has begun to supersede the creative types in terms of decision-making.  Given that the toy company has generally allowed the IDW comic-book line to go its own way, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for the moment.  The first few eps of season four (which debuts in late November) will tell the more accurate tale.

Will this end well?

3.  Bronies and Pegasisters (the latter being the belatedly-canonized name for female MLP:FIM fans) love to argue about who's "best pony" among the "Mane 6."  That argument will never be settled, of course, because people will always have their personal likes and dislikes, but there's a distinct difference between "best pony" and "best pony character," and there's very little doubt in my mind as to who the latter is: Rarity.  Rarity is one marvelous, marvelous character, and I'm not just saying that in a (falsely) "dumbed-down" MLP context.  I think that she's easily one of the best animated characters I've ever encountered, and she's already pushing hard, in a demure sort of way, for the exalted title of my favorite female Toon of any sort.

A bit of personal-historical perspective may be helpful here, at least to those of my readers who haven't heard me express my opinions on this subject before (most notably in PASSIONS, my friend Ken Bausert's old general-interest APA, back in the 1990s).  I may have great love for the male-dominated Duck comics and DuckTales, but I have no problem whatsoever with strong female Toon characters, and Disney TV Animation certainly provided more than its share of those during its heyday...


These gals all had their foibles -- well, you'd probably have to look a little more closely than normal to find Kim Possible's, but I digress -- but they also possessed obvious skills and enough strength of character to hold their own with anybody.  My single favorite female Toon, however, has long been POGO's Miss Ma'amselle Hepzibah, the demure French skunk who, if only by default, is the "romantic interest" in Walt Kelly's distaff-shy Okefenokee Swamp.

So, why The Divine Mademoiselle H?  Well, she's obviously quite easy on the eyes, especially in the later years of the strip.  She exudes thoughtfulness and generosity with her freely offered picnic lunches.  She also gives off the air of being "available" but doesn't pursue any one male in particular, though I've always assumed that she'd wind up with Pogo one of these years (by which I mean, the "imagined years" of the strip's continuance).  And, of course, the "fractured Franglais" that serves as her standard patois is simply delightful.

For all of Hepzibah's charms, she is, like Pogo himself, a rather... passive... character.  It makes sense that one of the common themes of the quadrennial "Pogo for President" campaigns involved getting Pogo and Hepzibah "hitched" for additional appeal to the voters; the more proactive characters laid their plans, while the possum and skunk were more or less ignorant of what was going on.  (When they DID find out, they tended to not be so keen on the idea, at least on the surface.)  When it came to general deportment, Pogo was famously reticent, but Hepzibah was, if possible, even more so.  The Wikipedia entry on POGO claims that Hepzibah "tends to be overdramatic," which, at least in my mind, brings Wikipedia's reliability into severe question.  (I'm being sarcastic, don't you know.)  Not only was Hepzibah not "overdramatic," but she very rarely even lost her temper or raised her voice; her "outbursts," when they came, tended to be quite mild.

RANTING FRENCH SKUNK! AUX BARRICADES!!

Rarity, "Spirit of Generosity" of the Elements of Harmony, ace gem-finder, and proprietor of Ponyville's chic Carousel Boutique, possesses obvious similarities to Hepzibah, most notably (and delightfully) in the area of looks.  I seem to have some sort of "thing" for well-designed black-and-white characters dating back to Kimba the White Lion and even Richie Rich's dog Dollar; indeed, one of the only things that made Disney's 101 Dalmatians: The Series palatable for me was the panache of "lead pup" Lucky.  (Yes, I know that the latter show featured scads of other B&W characters.  But I also know that character is more than color-scheme deep.)

Rarity isn't B&W, quite -- her mane and tail are actually dark purple -- but she has so much going for her that I'm willing to grant her B&W status by proxy.  Her attractiveness is exponentially increased by the fact that she (1) has a distinct, well-advertised sense of style and fashion and (2) gets to frequently play "dress-up" due to the fact that she designs dresses.  Some of her outfits are real knockouts, and, when I saw her appear in a "Frenchy" gown with gloves (or are they socks??  It's hard to tell with ponies) and speaking with a French accent... well, for obvious reasons, it was almost too much for me to take.

But it is in the area of personality that Rarity truly shines.  A long-standing credo of mine is that, in order for me to truly enjoy a comic-strip, comic-book, or animated product, "I've got to have someone to root for."  Smartass humor and satire can be fun in an intellectual sense, but, in an emotional sense, they can take you only so far.  One of the strengths of MLP:FIM is that it is so easy to root for the "Mane 6" characters and their friends as they alternatively learn lessons about friendship (the "Dear Princess Celestia..." episodes, which are not as prevalent as they once were but are still very much a part of the series) and battle various threats to Equestria (which, ironically, will have to be revamped in season four now that the ponies have managed to make friends with, or at least come to some sort of terms with, the likes of Discord and Trixie).  Complicating matters, but also engendering audience sympathy, is the fact that the "Mane 6" occasionally have difficulty living up to their "spirits."  Thus, for example, Applejack's stubborn honesty often leads her to bite off more than she can chew, Rainbow Dash's athletic abilities feed an ego that occasionally spins out of control, and Twilight Sparkle's anal-retentive devotion to her magical studies and her responsibilities as Celestia's prize mentee literally drove her insane on one infamous occasion.

Needless to say, Rarity participated in the great game of "fighting against her nature" as well.  In her case, however, the battle never really ends; there is always some sort of conflict going on between her obvious virtues (generosity towards others, above all) and her equally obvious flaws (love of attention, desire to gain wider fame and fortune for her couturiere skills, a somewhat controlling nature, and a genuine predilection to overdramatize things).  Part of the reason for the struggle may be that "Spirit of Generosity" was not Rarity's original monicker; she was originally slated to be the "Spirit of Inspiration," but the show's creators eventually decided that title to be too vague.  It's almost as if the tension between what Rarity was supposed to be and what she was ultimately assigned to be is "working itself out" inside her as the series progresses.  That has to be somewhat painful.  It may make her (not to mention the viewer/reader) feel better to consider that Scrooge McDuck has had to fight a similar "battle between natures" ever since Carl Barks started to soften the hard-bitten early version of the character in the 50s.

Rarity impressed me favorably when I first started watching some of the "key episodes" of MLP:FIM, but then, all of the "Mane 6" characters did, with the possible exception of Pinkie Pie (and I've since raised the "pink flag" on her, mostly to keep her from using it to break the fourth wall again).  I first began to take Rarity seriously as a great character when I watched the early second-season ep "Sisterhooves Social."  This episode, even with its elementary plot and occasional dips into shameless sentimentality, is now snugly ensconced in my personal "Top 10" list of favorite half-hour animated eps.  Yes, right up there with the likes of "Hero for Hire," "Sir Gyro de Gearloose," "Journey into Time," "Dangerous Journey," "Stormy Weather"... you KNOW it had to have wowed me in order to join such company so quickly.  Hard on the hooves of "Social" came "Sweet and Elite," the tale of Rarity's attempt to break into the high society of Equestria's capital Canterlot, which is almost as good, both as a story and as an examination of Rarity's character.  Amazingly, the series has given Rarity NO STARRING ROLES since then, leaving it to the magnificent issue #3 of IDW's MLP MICRO-SERIES to remind us what we have been missing in the interim.  Happily, reports are that Rarity will be getting some featured roles in season four.

As I noted above, whereas Hepzibah is a warm and likable, but perhaps overly placid and overly nit-free, character, Rarity is an exquisitely balanced mixture of virtues and flaws (which her virtues give her the character to overcome -- eventually).  The tension is never more apparent than in the episode "Sonic Rainboom," in which she selflessly agrees to test a difficult "temporary flying spell" for Twilight so that the ponies can go up to the Pegasus stronghold of Cloudsdale and support Rainbow Dash in a "Best Young Flier" contest.  The whole gang eventually gets up there (with the others opting for a simpler "ability to walk on clouds" spell), but Rarity is so taken with her beautiful new wings (or, more accurately, with others' awed reactions to the wings) that she completely forgets about the "big picture" and decides to enter the contest herself.  When she climaxes her routine by flying up to bask in the light of the sun...

... well, anyone with a cursory knowledge of Greek mythology can guess what's coming next.  Rainbow Dash ends up performing the supposedly impossible "Sonic Rainboom" maneuver (and, needless to say, winning the contest) to save Rarity from a death-dive.  A properly chagrined Rarity begs forgiveness of Princess Celestia and the other "Mane" ponies and, of course, receives it.

"Sweet and Elite" has something of a similar structure to "Rainboom," with Rarity intending to perform a good deed (in this case, making Twilight a birthday dress to thank her for securing a room in Celestia's palace during Rarity's business trip to Canterlot) but getting sidetracked by an unexpected chance to shine herself.  In this case, the "chance to shine" is nothing less than the opportunity to become "the pony that everypony should know" in Canterlot society.  Since the vast majority of "Canterlot society" consists of shallow, superficial snobs, Rarity, by her very nature, is already a hind leg up on them insofar as "true class" goes.  Given her strong emphasis on the importance of style and fashion, it's probably understandable that she fails to realize that.  The "crisis" arrives when Twilight and the other "Mane" ponies unexpectedly come to town to celebrate Twilight's birthday at precisely the time when Rarity is granted a precious invitation to an exclusive garden party.  This leads to the usual "I have to be in two places at once" hijinx...

... but the scam becomes unstuck, as it inevitably does in "sitches" like these, and Rarity is forced to choose between propitiating the snobs and defending her "rustic" Ponyville friends.  (Given that Canterlot and Ponyville are literally within physical sight of one another, one could question the logic of this last conflict, but whatever.)  After taking several deep breaths and making several funny faces, she does so.  Luckily, the leading snob is more broad-minded than the others, and so Rarity escapes relatively unscathed.  One could object here that Rarity manages to get away with A LOT (including nearly freezing her cat Opalescence to death to convince the others that "the poor dear" is sick), but the subterfuge is at least partially mitigated by the straightforwardness with which Rarity admits her relationship to the other members of the "Mane 6."  This is a pretty consistent trait: Rarity always does the right thing when push comes to shove.  It's the struggle before the "push" becomes the "shove" that helps us identify with her; as with Darkwing Duck, Scrooge McDuck, and other flawed-yet-admirable Toons, we recognize her weaknesses in ourselves.

"Sisterhooves Social" focuses on the surefire theme of conflict between siblings -- in this case, Rarity and her little sister Sweetie Belle, who is dumped in Rarity's lap while the girls' "redneck Canadian" parents go off on a vacation.  (How did Rarity get to be so sophisticated when she has such parents as role models?  Greg Weagle would no doubt say that he SMELLS A FANFIC COMING!  And, knowing the Bronies, it's probably already been written.)

Sweetie Belle proves more willing than able to help the busy, preoccupied Rarity around the house.  Worse yet, she innocently provokes chaos by doing things that Rarity doesn't want done, such as using some rare gemstones to make Rarity a present and cleaning up Rarity's messy "inspiration room."  Rarity reacts as you would expect a picky perfectionist and "artiste" to react, but voice actress Tabitha St. Germain always puts a "little something special" into these bursts of temper, including "sudden low-pitched shrieks" that clash dramatically (and amusingly) with Rarity's normal, Audrey Hepburn-inflected voice.

Eventually, the girls become "un-sisters," and Sweetie Belle goes to be with her friend Apple Bloom and AB's sister Applejack, who are... well, certainly not "un-sisters."  Rarity recognizes the folly of her ways in quasi-operatic fashion when she takes another look at Sweetie's "silly little art project" and breaks down in tears...


... but, when she tries to make up with Sweetie Belle, she has some initial trouble acknowledging that the main problem is that, as Applejack puts it, "[she] never give[s] in" and she has to cure herself of the habit of being such a control freak.  When she, Applejack, and Apple Bloom hatch a scheme to allow Rarity to be an unwitting Sweetie Belle's partner at the Sisterhooves Social race on the Apple Family Farm, Rarity must overcome an equally forbidding phobia: an unwillingness to get dirty.  Well, one can hardly say that she didn't willingly go completely in the other direction in this case.

The girls reconcile in the end and tell their story to Princess Celestia.  I think that "Social" is the best of all of the "Rarity comes through late" eps, because the personal stakes are so high in this case and just about everyone can easily relate to the specific situation.

Another primal emotion -- jealousy -- fuels the plot of "Green Isn't Your Color" (clever title, that, considering Rarity's close identification with fashion).  Rarity gets a chance to show off her sartorial stock for a big-time fashion photographer and convinces Fluttershy to be her model, but the photog winds up going gaga for Fluttershy, who becomes a famous supermodel while Rarity is left to sit and stew.  The ep builds up the jealousy angle quite nicely, with Rarity alternatively blaming herself for her "failure to impress," doing the standard slow burns, and feeling severe pangs of guilt over her hopes that Fluttershy will fail.  As with the sister conflict, I think that we have all experienced one or more of these "stages of jealousy" at one time or another.

Unbeknownst to Rarity, however, the timid Fluttershy doesn't really want to BE the cynosure of all Equestria.  Twilight tries to use magic to help Fluttershy embarrass herself at a fashion show, but Rarity, "coming through" yet again, has an attack of pity for her friend and cheers the "new kind of modeling," leaving Fluttershy more popular than ever.  The two finally admit their real feelings to one another, and the status quo is restored.  It would have been so easy to have made Rarity the outright villain of this piece, but the show's writers, by and large, seem to have a solid grasp of what the character is capable of and can believably do; it is quite uncommon to see a script lazily fall back on characterizing Rarity as an egotistical fashionista.

Even on those occasions when Rarity plays a relatively minor role in an episode, the sheer force of her personality and emotions tend to leave a distinct impression.  "Ponyville Confidential" finds the Cutie Mark Crusaders trying to earn their "cutie marks" as journalists -- or, as things turn out, gossip columnists for the school paper.  The girls perform their dubious task so well that they are soon infuriating everypony in town with "juicy stories" of doubtful veracity.  As the other "Mane 6" ponies fret and fume, Rarity laughs off the "harmless gossip"... but then her own private diary gets published in the paper.

Finding out that Sweetie Belle had "borrowed" her diary, Rarity confronts her sister in typically overblown fashion.  Rank hypocrisy on display, you're no doubt saying -- but the thing is that Rarity actually evinces the most mature ultimate reaction to Sweetie's "betrayal" of any of the "Mane 6."  Whereas the other ponies shun the Crusaders, Rarity calmly tells Sweetie Belle that any "cutie mark" gained by hurting others' feelings and reputations probably isn't worth having.  These are literally her last words of the episode, but they are the ones that linger after the credits have rolled.

In "A Dog and Pony Show," Rarity initially appears to be a "mere" victim rather than a protagonist, as she is captured by gem-grubbing Diamond Dogs and forced to become a gem-hunting slave for them.  But she has a trick up her sleeve (or would, if she were wearing a dress in this episode).  Knowing full well what she's doing, she literally whines the Diamond Dogs into near-insanity while her friends are coming to the rescue.  These are sequences that you actually have to see to fully appreciate.  The first time I watched them, I assumed that Rarity was simply "being Rarity" and that her reactions were entirely natural.  Credit goes to Tabitha St. Germain for brilliantly hiding the truth with one of her best performances as Rarity.



If you're not interested in the TV series, you can still get an excellent overview of all of Rarity's glories in the MICRO-SERIES comic "How Rarity Got Her Groovy Back."  One of the folks commenting on the issue on Equestria Daily noted that the issue "emphasized so many of Rarity's best traits, including not merely generosity, but also her ambition, drive, commitment to hard work, intelligence, and business savvy."  I was especially pleased to see this last trait play such a major role in the story, especially after the tale began as a standard "finicky fish tossed into dirty water" scenario, with Rarity going for some needed R&R to a "wellness center" that turns out to be a front for a hippie commune that makes "all-natural" toiletry items.

Rather than run screaming for home, however, Rarity sticks out the muddy humiliations inherent in making the commune's products -- mostly because she appreciates their quality and gets to sample them...

 

... and, when she learns that the commune is in danger of being razed to make way for the Equestrian equivalent of a Wal-Mart, she helps the clueless hippies (are there any other kind??) to revamp their business (along "all-natural" lines, of course) and make it a profitable one.  Not only does this story highlight something about Rarity that is generally taken for granted -- she is a successful entrepreneur to rival Rebecca Cunningham, and perhaps an even more admirable one because she literally does everything herself (with a fair bit of help from her "Unicorn magic") -- but it treats the hippies' concerns as legitimate without devolving into the usual anti-capitalist screed.

I'll close this unconscionably long, yet deeply heartfelt, tribute by discussing the one episode in which Rarity's signature generosity takes full and complete center stage, with no deviations due to the other demons that drive her: "Suited for Success."  Rarity insists upon making new dresses for her friends to wear at Canterlot's upcoming Grand Galloping Gala, but they take advantage of her offer and insist upon "appropriate" changes to the (splendid) original designs.  Rarity, being Rarity, tries desperately to accommodate them... in song.


The revised dresses are so ludicrous that, when the ponies hold a fashion show to showcase Rarity's work, they receive universal cat -- er, ponycalls.  Rarity's reaction is nothing if not resigned and restrained.  No, actually, she goes into a long spiel about how one should properly "wallow in pity" and "go into exile."  This might be considered another case of Rarity's penchant for overdramatization, but, in this case, I think that she was perfectly within her rights to have a little tantrum.  Melodramatically calling herself "pa-the-he-tic" may have pushed the envelope a little too far, though.

Rarity's friends realize that they were wrong to "look a gift pony in the mouth" and apologize.  The subsequent "Take 2" fashion show is much more successful than the first one, as you might expect. 

I think you get my point.  I look forward with great anticipation to the show's plans for Rarity during season four and beyond.  If the creators are smart -- and I certainly think they are -- then they will take full advantage of the potential inherent in this wonderful character and give her the more prominent role that she deserves.  In the interim, I'll leave Rarity and Hepzibah to compare notes.  Hepzibah can teach Rarity how to control her emotions a bit, and Rarity can teach Hepzibah... how to use Kimba-style karate punches to fight off changeling monsters.

Yes, really.  I TOLD you the gal was multi-faceted.

2 comments:

Pan MiluĊ› said...

Rarity is just a type of Pony every Pony should know :)

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

And FABULOUS! Let's not forget FABULOUS!

Chris