by Joe Hammerschmidt
Small-screen to big-screen feature adaptations have seemed to hit a rather experimental corner in the last decade; Jump Street and Veronica Mars the best examples of original approaches which have avoided adhering to a basic structure, or even a traditional financial model. Looking back, 2007’s The Simpsons Movie set the benchmark for any TV show made theatrical, animated or otherwise; nothing else had come close to reaching the same lofty heights, in story, casting or grandeur. The arrival of My Little Pony: The Movie proves that the art of making a TV show work for the big screen without sacrificing the charm, or drifting too far from the source, is not lost.
Unlike what Springfield’s first family accomplished a decade prior, Pony grounds itself further into the understanding that audiences should be aware of the franchise’s lineage. First as a toy line in the 80s (later its own TV series, then its own film), and later evolving to the current generation in 2010 with the series Friendship is Magic, currently in its seventh season and still showing vitality with a very, VERY wide-reaching audience, ranging from young girls to grown men of various demographics. The timing couldn’t be better for the fans, yet its reach may not be as universal, which might not be as bad as you’d think.
From the first minute alone, one can tell this will be on a larger scale than the current show, the eyes being hit first with an initially unmatching blend of 2D hand-drawn characters with 3D CGI sets, championed by DoP Anthony Di Ninno (Ratchet & Clank) and art director Rebecca Dart. Yes, at first, it’s a bit off-putting, but the winning 2D animation (essentially the look of the show put to the extreme) really shines well in a higher-stakes arena, a half-full auditorium on a Saturday matinee.
The film keeps its focus just on the six key characters, on a simple yet still epic quest to once again restore balance to Ponyville, in the wake of another enemy threat desperate to destroy the forward-thinking message of friendship and harmony. Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) is the headstrong leader, an admirable spokesperson for peace, whose own limits are tested farther than what had been experienced before in over 100 half-hour adventures. Her foe is the sharply dressed, if not campily menacing Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), honing your basic dark-villain-with-darker-childhood backstory.
As a servant to the rather over-the-top Storm King (Liev Schreiber at his most comical), her loyalty stays true, yet her boss is less action by comparison. No less serious is her appointed hedgehog sidekick Grubber (Michael Peña, ever the ad-lib artist), who somehow knows to make every mishap ironically funny. To no surprise, Tempest has none of that in her own journey to staunch the positivity, which appears in ample, saccharine supply between the bookwormish princess, accompanied by fashion-trendy Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain), party planner Pinkie Pie and nature-loving Fluttershy (Andrea Libman), & fast-flying Rainbow Dash and farm gal Applejack (Ashleigh Ball). Is it a shame the main voice cast doesn’t necessarily get top billing in the advertising? The hard-core fans will say yes, but anything to ensure the film sells.
A threat so figuratively large typically calls for new heroes to arise while the team is hot on Tempest’s tail. Their end goal: A lost community of hippogriffs turned seahorses, ruled by the benevolent Queen Novo (Uzo Aduba) and her energetic daughter Skystar (the bubbly-as-ever Kristen Chenoweth). Additional assistance follows with the suave, catlike Capper (Taye Diggs, finally reviving his true musical roots); and a ragtag team of rebellious pirates, helmed by the jaded Captain Celaeno (Zoe Saldana). Much like the rest of the film, their inclusions are very hit-and-miss, despite some naturally strong female performances by the cast in general, especially Miss Blunt who steals the show through one of the most committed villain songs in recent memory, one of five written by staff composer Daniel Ingram for the soundtrack. And yes, as with the show, the movie guarantees music stays at the forefront with both building plot and stopping the show.
Series vet Jayson Thiessen (director), and writers Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsaio, and Michael Vogel have ensured the My Little Pony legacy remains firm in the foot, even if the plot sometimes works off of shaky ground. It may be impossible to fight past the “just an extended episode of the old show” curse, which the film routinely faces with gusto, and an overwhelmingly refreshing sense of humor. As mentioned at the beginning, it helps to know the show beforehand if one’s to get the most out of it; anyone going in blind might not survive the full 1 3/4 hour runtime, unaware of its sappiness. It’s layered on thick, but the message remains the same: friendship will conquer over evil. All the stops are pulled, and they all land just right, with no major missteps to be found. Fans will appreciate the big-screen feel, knowing their precious commodity has reached new heights, some younger fans will probably meet a scary match, and anyone just in need of some laidback celluloid sunshine will feel right at home. (B+)
My Little Pony: The Movie opens this weekend at most area theaters; rated PG for mild action; 104 minutes.