My Little Pony -- Friendship Is Magic is not the girlishly pandering MLP you may remember making fun of. I made fun of it myself, not just for being milquetoast, but also doing everything it could to reinforce traditional gender roles. Oh, the ponies are pretty! Oh, they're getting their hair done! Oh, they are going on adventures with no real risks or consequences! Even modern shows don't really push. Strawberry Shortcake still presents itself as girly and shows celebrates the characters doing girly things. They have no real identity other than being girly.
Babysitting meant that I would be subjected to the new MLP running on The Hub. I didn't have much hope, but the cold open of the episode gave me some hope. Not much, I figured it would go off the rails before too long. It was during the show open that I got my first indication this might not be a disaster. The executive producer is Lauren Faust. Faust is a longtime animation pro, working on Powerpuff Girls and Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends. She's also married to Craig McKracken, the creator of those two series. Suddenly, this whole thing had possibilities, and I decided to shut down the Snark Machine and give it a chance.
Boy, am I glad I did. Usually, writing a positive review is harder than writing a negative one. It's easy to explain why something doesn't work, but tougher to explain why it does, especially when sometimes, the answer is, "I just liked it." But FiM does everything right. It still tries to teach Important Life Lessons, but it's almost like that is just the frame, and they try to cram what it surrounds with as many gags as possible. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who wants to make cartoons should be watching the show with a notebook and examining everything they do. Everything that makes cartoons work, all the discoveries by Hannah Barbera and Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, are all employed here for maximum effect.
One of the first things they get right is the voice of the ostensible viewpoint character, Twilight. In the classic Tom And Jerry cartoons, some characters who spoke would have normal voices, not cartoony ones, such as the one where Tom died after being crushed by a piano and had to get Jerry to forgive him or he'd burn in Hell. The admitter at the Pearly Gates had a grandfatherly voice that forced the focus of the cartoon to change from Tom and Jerry beating the living shit out of each other and ratcheted up the tension as Tom fought his fate. Twilight is a student, learning about friendship and others, and her normal voice provides a solid anchor against the absurdities around her, like when Ponyville "survives" a stampede of rabbits.
That said, the cartoony voices of the other characters are pitch perfect. None of them are played as one note archetypes, but actually thinking and reacting. Rarity, for example, is a fashionista, and her line reads are very well done. You get the feeling you are listening to actual characters talk, not people reciting lines in a recording booth.
The characterization is also spot on. Because the episodes tend to focus on one or two characters and the others operate on the periphery, there will be times when some episodes won't be as interesting because you just don't dig the character as much. But if it's a character you groove to, you'll be completely sucked in. One episode focused on the escalating rivalry between Rainbow Dash and Applejack. It grew, twisted, and turned in realistic ways. I'm a competitor myself, and hang with other competitors, so seeing the two getting more and more pissed at each other was a walk down Memory Lane for me.
Side note: remember what I said about the characters actually being characters? While the central theme is friendship, they still are individuals. They disagree, they argue, they can be self-absorbed, and on occasion, they will openly mock each other. Twilight, in fact, frequently gets frustrated by the others and will physically shove them around at times. There ain't no Mary Sues here. In fact, unlike the other MLP incarnations, the characters here actually work and have jobs, they don't frolic in a world that provides everything for them.
The characters are very consistent and the writers are very imaginative in how they are handled. Bad movie fans recognize the Informed Attribute, something that, if others in the movie weren't making you aware of it, you'd never guess. For example, She's All That featured a girl everyone said wasn't pretty who actually looked pretty good. The Star Wars prequels featured Anakin and Amidala professing their love for each other because you'd never know from the zero chemistry they possessed otherwise. The characters are assigned personality traits but they are just trivia.
In FiM, the personality traits not only affect how the characters behave, but even little actions reflect their interests. Twilight is a student sent to live in Ponyville, and everything about her screams, "bookworm." She's quieter than the others, is introspective, literally lives in the library, thinks further ahead, can be socially awkward, she is constantly seen sitting and reading...a simple speech, she writes out in advance and is large enough for a couple of reams of paper. You are told Blueberry Muffin in Strawberry Shortcake is a bookworm. Twilight? You actually believe it.
One of the best characters, though, is Pinky Pie. Pinky cracks me up. She is the most cartoony of them all. She can literally pop into the frame from any angle (what, exactly, was she doing inside that podium?), and there are moments when, if you watch close, you'll see her look directly at the camera in the middle of an action while all the other characters stay focused on things around them. On a scale of Threat To The Fourth Wall, she comes in somewhere between Squirrel Girl and Deadpool. Pinkie isn't played as a complete ditz, she's just overly enthusiastic, making her easily distracted. You don't react to her with annoyance, but with a shake of the head and mutter, "Well...what are you going to do?" WARNING: the songs she sings will get stuck in your head for days on end.
The characters actually act. Their body language and expressions are constantly moving and conveying. The episode where Rainbow Dash and Applejack were competing featured a "rope the calf" competition. Spike the dragon was press ganged into being the target. The camera briefly settles on him, just standing, wearing a viking helmet to give him horns, and his posture and expression says, "Oh, goddammit....." The eyes of the characters are very expressive, changing shape, eyebrows going up and down, and pupils dilating or contracting to points.
The music is incredible. Like in the classic cartoons, the style of the music changes depending on which character has focus at the moment. Fluttershy gets quiet, minimal instrumentation at a slow rate, while Rainbow Dash gets rocking music. One scene with Fluttershy and Applejack talking had the music switch as each one said their lines. The scene for Twilight's attempted speech has her being constantly interrupted, and each pony that does changes Twilight's majestic ceremonial music to whatever they are, like the carnivalish tunes of Pinkie Pie (which comes to a complete halt when she stops to think for a moment). The music also does its own jokes. One episode has Twilight getting an extra ticket to the biggest gala in the land, and everybody wants to be her friend so they can go. When word gets around, she is relentlessly pursued by the other residents of Ponyville in a chase scene featuring music in the style of Yakkety Sax, the chase theme from Benny Hill. When that happened, I just stared at the screen and thought, No kid is EVER going to get this, this was done for the grown-ups watching.
The writing is fantastic. Dumb luck and unintended consequences abound. During a race between Applejack and Rainbow Dash, Applejack attempts to slow Rainbow by knocking down a bee hive. Instead, the bees panic Rainbow into running even faster in a five second sequence that always busts me up. The directing and editing show an understanding of comic timing that would make the Grand Masters Of Animation proud. The pacing is brisk. Gags are not forced to attention. When a batch of bad cupcakes makes a bunch of ponies sick, a quick pan shot around the infirmary shows one with her head in a bucket.
The show is made for fans of cartoons first, and hangs on just enough kiddie stuff to make its obligation. My Little Pony -- Friendship Is Magic is simply one of the best cartoons in years, and if you love the art form, you will find a lot of laughs and a lot of great stuff here.