Tuesday, March 11, 2014

March of the Ponies: An abridged history of 'My Little Pony'

[NOTE: Links to other March of the Ponies stories will go here as they are published. Part 2 - Review of Lauren Faust's prior works, Part 3 - MLP Comics (Micro-series of Twilight, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, CMCs/Celestia, Spike/LunaNightmare Rarity arc (main series)), Part 4 - Equestria Girls reviewPart 5 - Fan-made episodes (Dusk's Dawn, Double Rainboom, Snowdrop), Part 6 - Fan works (MusicDoctor Whooves, Parody/Abridged Series, Fanfictions), Part 7 - Season Reviews: Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Magical Mystery Cure, Season 4 (to date)]

Well, I wish all my fellow Catholics a pleasant Lenten season. I'm already behind on this gimmick, so expect a second Pony article this week.

Anyway, a lot of you are probably curious as to why this blog is suddenly taking an in-depth look at the My Little Pony franchise, specifically this generation's version of the show, "Friendship is Magic."

Yes, this is happening on my blog.
The answer is quite simple: the Internet demands it, and my curiosity is piqued.

I actually watched the original version of this show when it was on the protozoic version of the Disney Channel in the early 90s, mostly because it came on around Care Bears and Gummi Bears. (I was 4. Give it a rest.)

But the thing is, all those programs are a nostalgia trip now. Very few aspects of them are so objectively good that I could go back and re-watch them for anything other than reliving my childhood.

My Little Pony, on the other hand, seems to have rebuilt itself into a multi-platform machine. And its biggest fan base is not the little children who carried it in the old days. Instead, the group that seems to carry its ratings the hardest are men in their late 20s through early 40s - also known as 'Bronies.'

Something about this show is hitting a bulls-eye. I don't buy that a show can have a base that large comprised of just nostalgia trippers or weirdos. This show obviously attracts a true, legitimate, rabid fan base and 'ah gots ta'know!"

As such, prepare to strap in for a string of reviews and glimpses at MLP: FIM during this March of the Ponies.

To give you a feel for how this will work, here's my basic plan:

Week 1 (technically this blog): History of the animated Ponies before FIM
Week 2: A review of some of creator Lauren Faust's earlier works
Week 3: MLP: FIM comics
Week 4: MLP: Equestria Girls review
Week 5: A look at the voice-staff and fan-made episodes (Dusk's Dawn, Double Rainboom and Snowdrop)
Week 6: A look at the most famous fanfiction, "My Little Dashie," the most infamous, "Cupcakes," and other recommended works
Week 7/Holy Week: A general review of the show proper, season by season.
Week 8: Final conclusions and a top 10 list of favorite characters

Anyway, this will be a very brief review of previous variations on the universe and a measure of what their strengths and weaknesses were. Why? Because much like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, understanding provides context to why things are the way they are now.

The first series ran for 65 episodes (including two standalone specials that were later re-worked as two-part season finales for the series) and a movie. I actually only vaguely remember the show, as its reruns led into the "My Little Pony Tales" show that aired when I was young. However, I remember it slightly and a re-watch of a couple episodes on YouTube did help jog my memory.

What may come across as surprising is that this version of the show was kind of dark. If the show didn't use so much faded, pastel coloring they could have really made this an uncomfortable show for kids. It's definitely gone darker than a lot of Disney's stuff at the time.

The show's ultimate failing is, and I can't believe I'm saying this, there's too much going on too quickly. The show predominantly did multi-part episodes and seemed to operate with vastly different casts leading each time.

Seriously, most fleshed-out entity in the whole show.
There are more than 20 ponies listed on the character list on Wikipedia, and the major characters are considered the humans (and Spike the dragon). That's because they're the only characters who seem to carry over from arc to arc.

Because of this, the pony characters are very one-note and don't have enough depth to carry a show as a major character. And to be blunt, the kids are pretty bland themselves and Spike really is the closest thing to a fleshed out character in the show.

The reason this is a problem is that it's hard to get invested in a grandiose plot if you have no idea who the characters are and what makes them important. It works as a young children's show because it's easy to create the rooting interest: the colorful ones are good and the scary ones are bad. But without characterization, the show loses strength as the viewer gets older.

If you need any reason why the series stopped after two years, that's it. The kids watching were going into school soon, and the show's flaws were about to become exposed.

As for the movie, I actually remember the villains from its Disney airings. The witches, however, I only remember as comic relief. The big threat was the ever-expanding ooze monster known only as... the Smooze.

Yeah, I've already seen some Friendship is Witchcraft as of this blog and I actually laughed at the callback when I figured out the context.

While I don't remember this villain by name, I remember seeing a villain like this as a kid and being intimidated by an unstoppable force that changes your mind. I was actually surprised it was MLP; for some reason, I was sure it was a Care Bears villain, but oh well...

I couldn't find the whole movie but did find parts of it. From what I can tell, it was slightly better executed because they limited the cast and gave characters a little more time to develop. Mind you, it wasn't much better, but if you're looking up original MLP stuff, go with the movie before the series.

If people really want a full review of this movie, they can request it, but I think these thoughts suffice.

The other MLP G1 series was "Tales," which I mentioned I saw running after the original show. (I was a TV junkie as a kid, if you couldn't tell.)

"Tales" was much different from the original series. The ponies walked on two legs and did more human tasks; humans were removed from the series; the major cast was set at 7 ponies; and the subject matter focused less on magic and more on behavior in social situations.

Compliments first: the animation here is better and the characters actually had a little more depth. The characters actually were somewhat memorable, and while I couldn't call the names up in my head, when they were said during a re-watch, the show came back to me a little. Things were done right here.

The problem is that the conflicts were absurdly small-time, way too predictable and the songs they tried to work in were UNBEARABLE.

This show only lasted 26 episodes, but if I had to give a recommendation, this show is more practical for kids and had better characters, so I'd recommend this old-school MLP voyage if you're going with either.

There was no series, really, after these, but that didn't stop early 2000s Hasbro from trying to force feed everyone a bunch of direct-to-video movies. And, oh my, these are boring beyond comprehension.

First off, the animation seems to have somehow regressed since the 1980s and 90s. The ponies look less like ponies and I'm convinced the animators only did like two or three stock drawing for speech because everyone's dialogue motions look the same and their words only barely match the animation.

The actual motion is choppy and the pegasi feel like the early draft of robots used for the Small, Small World ride at Disneyland.

But these movies' biggest failures come in characters and plot, in that neither exist. The ponies somehow have even less developed personalities and, if possible, have negative amounts of charisma. The stories have no real conflict and what little there is gets resolved with barely an acknowledgment that it even existed.

I've heard of something called "Generation 3.5," which is apparently a movie that deviates from the traditional early 2000s design but is more connected to those movies than the current series. The designs somehow got even less sensible and I'm convinced the young versions of the ponies were based on that baby in "Dinosaurs."
You're doing ponies wrong if I'm reminded of this.

I will say this: when I first discovered the Internet's love of FIM, the only name that came to mind was Rainbow Dash. That name was not in the original shows and was exclusive to the 2000s when I knew nothing of the product, so I have no idea how on Earth that name slipped into my subconscious. Kudos to these movies, I guess, for getting that character out there... somehow.

Conclusion: I was actually going to do a show comparison between the old and new shows, but elected against it because it became very clear just watching a few episodes of each that the current series has blown the others away by miles.

Don't get me wrong: While it was a chore to re-watch early pony stuff, there were elements done well and the earlier series especially had moments of decent entertainment. However, at the end of the day, the earlier works were clearly oriented toward kids and kids alone.

Nothing about these shows was bad for children and would have probably been entertaining for people much, much younger than I am. But it seems like the older a viewer is, the harder it would be to enjoy the older versions of MLP. There's very little meat to the characters and the plots are better in concept than in execution.

Additionally, the older shows were definitely more oriented toward females and hoped that cutesy imagery would carry the audience the way action shows like He-Man and Transformers had done for male audiences.

Already I can see that FIM has done far more than its predecessors. It has a plot that not only makes sense in its world, but actually works to give characters something to react to. And the characters are really fleshed out. They have actual thought processes that evolve with the show.

In closing, I think the biggest difference between the MLPs past and the one now is that the older shows were wish fulfillment. The ponies' characters were mostly blank so the kids buying the toys could fill in the blanks themselves. That's great for selling toys, but you don't get viewers by giving a half-finished product.

FIM creator Lauren Faust sought to create characters that people would want to see and a show that would connect viewers to the characters so fans would actually want the individual toys. Effectively, she went the TMNT route more where the old shows went the Captain Planet route.

Speaking of Ms. Faust, I review her older works next time.

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