Tuesday, 2 September 2014

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic - Fall Weather Friends (Episode Review)

Yeah this is going to require some explaining again before we begin.

Recently I was given the chance to speak with a few friends, fans of the show who were not so insane as to call someone "niger" and then accuse them of racism. The subject of the comic review came up and one of the things they agreed upon was that it was a poor introduction to the franchise. It was apparently already written with die-hard fans in mind rather than any new audience, and while the review hammered in that fact it didn't seem entirely fair to hold this as an example of the entire show. As such I was convinced, by which I mean asked rather than spammed and insulted, to give the show one more chance and this episode was recommended.

Truth be told part of me did think that some of my negative feelings might have still carried over to the comic review so it only seems fair to do this. No matter just how hostile a fandom might be or how toxic its worst elements truly are, it is unfair to lump both the show and the better people who enjoy it in with them. As such, to the fans reading who I insulted with prior responses to messages I apologise, that was wrong. Whatever problems I might have with mob mentalities and the community's fanatics, that should not have carried over to the show itself or those who just enjoy it. Please consider this review something of an olive branch and a much more evenly handled look at your cartoon.

The story behind this episode starts with Applejack and Rainbow Dash in competition with one another, throwing horseshoes over a spike in the ground. After some slight ribbing from Applejack, the pegasus' hurt pride leads her to consider taking things a step further and challenges her to a competition to see which of them is the better athlete. The following day, competitions start between the two, but what starts as a friendly contest soon dissolves into bitter conflict.

It's not exactly the most complex plot is it, something fairly straight forwards with no obvious villain or monster of the week. If this were any other acclaimed cartoon, it would more likely be a forgettable fluff episode which would be set between big story arcs rather than a regular staple of the series. Having this as the main focus means it is trying to draw attention back towards something otherwise largely lost today. 
In the drive to become more adult or tell bigger stories during the 90s, acclaimed Western animation did start to lose some of its affinity for simple fun. For as great as dark adult storytelling is, vile antagonists, or even series spanning arcs, having almost nothing but them is just as damaging as not having them at all. We have certainly seen something of a shift back towards them with the likes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold or a few other series, but this one seems to be the one which is trying to embrace the style of older cartoons the most.

Sticking with the superhero subject matter, it's something similar to what has been seen in Marvel and DC Comics over past years, where everything has become insanely dark or event focused. Both had their place in each universe, but they have now come to dominate each one with Marvel churning out endless waves of big events and DC mandating unhappy personal lives for its superheroes. So, naturally when something like the Power Girl comic came out trying to return to more positive times, it immediately found a niche audience who lapped it up.

This seems to be MLP:FiM's (you'll have to excuse the acronym from here on) biggest strength, it's simple and straight forwards, but it knows exactly how to handle the subject and cover an area otherwise largely ignored by more established franchises. This can be seen in the episode's plot, which is a straight forwards breakdown of a friendship between two characters before being rekindled at the end. There's a clear narrative curve and you can see the early spark which causes the situation to devolve, going from praising one another's efforts to an outright brawl towards the end. However, it progresses extremely naturally and doesn't rely too heavily upon specific points to jump from one act to the next, and there's no point where the story really drags.

Perhaps more importantly for any episodic series, it does a surprisingly good job at establishing each relevant character's personality at the start without detracting from the story itself. Compared to the first few minutes of the average Justice League or Avengers episode, great as they are, what's here is far more aptly handled with small remarks, comments and conversations delivering a surprising amount of information very quickly. This leaves it very open to new watchers, and it leaves more time for the actual events themselves. More importantly, unlike the comic, this is the core focus right at the start opposed to trying to drop as many references as possible and leaving a newcomer completely lost.

While a little too much like flash animation for my personal liking, the style of MLP:FiM works extremely well for what it is attempting to do. The style is extremely fluid and works just as well for big animated moments as much as the more static scenes, easily adjusting from one to the next and allowing for far more speed, animation and movement than a few others which come to mind. This is especially important as it allows the gradual escalation of events to feel natural, with both Applejack and Rainbow Dash resorting to more and more Wacky Racers style efforts to cheat and break ahead of one another. The actual antics themselves continually prove to be fun, and make better, more subtle references than found in the comic. Hiding in a bush to escape bees or ending up at the top of a cliff are more subtle reminders of the sorts of Loony Toons antics than, say, suddenly shoving Daffy Duck into the race as the comic would.

The only glaring problem which truly stands out is that the story doesn't quite work. It's trying to deliver a message to not let competition destroy relationships, yes, but that falls flat given the actions of one character. Even accepting the fact the episode takes time to show that Rainbow Dash's bruised ego and willingness to jump to conclusions are what causes the escalation, the writer here seemed to be playing favourites. 

During the early match between the two, she suddenly starts getting away with outright cheating, using her wings to beat her opponent at long-jumps, or lifting Applejack over the mud and tricking her to let go in a tug-of-war. No one besides her opponent calls her out on these acts and she's even awarded because of this, turning up in the next scene boasting about her victory with no repercussions. This would be bad enough, but she also suddenly starts becoming physically stronger and gains greater endurance than Applejack, traits which the non-pegasi is apparently supposed to outstrip her in. Please correct me if i'm wrong on that though, this is going from a friend's information here. 

Despite all this however, she's treated no worse than Applejack and the episode tries to present the idea they were equally at fault rather than it largely stemming from one person. As such the moral of the story becomes a little hard to swallow when, by all accounts, it would have never become so bad were one racer so utterly determined to win over her opponent, to the point of exploiting a physical difference.

Still, despite this the episode was surprisingly fun. While nothing award winning, or anything I would remember in the long run, there was nothing glaringly wrong with it besides the aforementioned story issue. The creators knew its subject, how to approach it, and given what it was trying to do, it's not hard to see why it has fans who sit down and enjoy it. That said it's certainly not the Hemingway tier storytelling some fans try to claim the series delivers on a weekly basis. While personally I would still rank the average tale from Batman The Animated Series or Gargoyles over it, the episode was entertaining for what it was.

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