Opinion: Applejack is the best pony
I realized last week, when Hasbro thought it was a good idea to release a movie based on Battleship, that I will probably be reviewing a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic movie within the next couple of years. At least that is a Hasbro property people actually want a movie of.
In preparation, I decided to sit down with the first season of said Hasbro property. Finally, I feel I understand where these “bronies” are coming from.
It involves cats, but first ...
This needs to be put right up front.
I try to put up a façade of elite, cynical snobbery, but in point of fact, I am very much a hayseed. A redneck. A hick.
On one hand, it is something I am ashamed of. On the other hand, I am also thoroughly proud of it.
I come from the area of the USA most heavily devastated by what is now known as the Dust Bowl, which caused a mass migration of farmers who are now known as “Okies.” To this day, the population density of “No Man’s Land” is so sparse, it is still considered unsettled territory.
My grandparents were not Okies. They stayed.
I heard that the dust got into everything during the worst of it. I assume that includes my genes.
All this is just to answer a question I know you are already asking. You want to know which is my favorite pony, and why.
I like Applejack. She is a hick. She reminds me of my Grammy. That is all.
I am not a bronie, in case you still think that is what I was confessing. No, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a decent show, with appealing animation, great voice work, decent characterization, a guaranteed belly laugh every other episode, and tight story structure. I can admire and respect the show for those qualities; but, at the end of the day, I cannot get worked up enough about it to apply some kind of label to myself. In point of fact, it is not that groundbreaking; its true strength as a show lies in how old fashioned it is.
I have heard a lot about how well-written the characters are, and will admit that the six main characters are each readily-identifiable and distinct from one another. However, they are hardly earthshaking in their originality. Applejack may be my favorite, but you can guess her character traits just by looking at her design. Pinkie Pie is a wacky cartoon character, which is pretty common in cartoons, in case you have not yet noticed. Heck, she’s not even the only wacky cartoon Pinkie.
So, how about the story? Here’s a test. The younger, dark-haired member of a pair of siblings destined to rule a magical realm rebels against the older, fair-haired sibling and is banished to the inky blackness of space. Eventually, this younger sibling returns, threatening the world. Six heroes must learn to work together and combine their special talents to meet this threat.
Now, was I describing the plot of the first two episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, or the plot of the recent Avengers movie?
In case you have not yet seen the movie and/or episodes in question, the answer is both.
So does My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic being about a group of superheroes with the surprisingly effective secret identities of a girl’s toy line from the 80s explain bronies? I mean, guys really like superheroes, and that outweighs objections to ponies, right? Well, not exactly. After all, it’s not like superhero teams that are not also talking ponies are hard to find. My point is, the plot of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is no more mind-blowing than its characterization.
Still, originality is overrated, and despite fairly traditional character types, fans seem to identify very strongly with these characters, as I have with Applejack. The real magic of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic lies in its tight adherence to tried and true storytelling techniques.
Movie and television storytelling is very different from prose storytelling. One major difference is that prose is cheap, film is not. Films and television shows must be popular to be profitable; a good book can appeal to a smaller fanbase and still make the author money. If an author wants to keep writing even if the profit margin is small or even nonexistent, he can continue to do so. If a filmmaker wants to keep making films, he had better turn a profit, or at least have a very generous patron.
Movie and television are also visual mediums; we are allowed into the heads of characters in books. Not so much in movies. Whether this leads to great characterization is beside the point; authors are told to “show, don't tell,” but TV and movie writers do not always have that option. At least, not without horrible dialogue.
Screenwriters have developed many tricks to deal with such issues, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic uses one like a virtuoso: the ponies of Ponyville are absolute masters at saving cats.
The theory behind this trick actually comes from movies rather than television, but the principles are the same; an audience must like a character to sit through an entire movie about them, but they also must believe the character is truly good, or at least worth rooting for. To show this, movies often begin with important characters doing something nice for no personal gain, such as saving a cat.
This little trick has become less common as time has gone by, mostly due to the rise of the anti-hero. Even in cases when the protagonist is not really an anti-hero, it has become out of style to show said protagonist as a moral paragon who goes about his or her day saving cats, metaphorical or otherwise, because that would be unrealistic. This has been the dominant thinking for at least the last two decades.
However, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is about talking ponies; reality need not apply. The first episode does not feature a lot of cat-saving; we meet various key ponies, and learn who they are. The next, in which the main ponies assemble like Avengers, is where the cats come in.
What's interesting is who saves cats in this episode, and how. Twilight Sparkle is our point-of-view character; to a certain extent, the other five ponies must prove themselves to her in order to prove themselves to us. She does not have her own cat-saving moment until the third episode, when she proves she has learned the lesson of friendship by returning both tickets to the Gala rather than leaving four of her friends behind.
Fluttershy’s wallflower nature arouses protective instincts in the audience; regardless of gender, you are pretty much on her side from the start. Her mission is not to prove she is a decent person – though she does that, too – but to prove she can be of use at all by taming the manticore.
Rarity and Rainbow Dash are the ones required to make personal sacrifices to prove their worth, as they are introduced with the most obvious moral flaws: Rarity is vain, while Rainbow Dash is overly proud. So, Rarity must sacrifice her tail to the dragon in a display of generosity, while Rainbow Dash refuses the temptation to abandon her friends when she comes in contact with a group of pegasi who praise her flight skills.
Pinkie Pie, like Fluttershy, does not require a save-the-cat moment at first; she is amusing enough that we forgive her her trespasses. Nevertheless, in another early episode, she refuses to play a trick on Fluttershy. She is also obliged to explain why to Rainbow Dash; due to Pinkie Pie’s similarity to other (amoral) cartoon characters, it is imperative that she prove not only can she do the right thing, but that she does it because it’s the right thing, and not just another random occurrence that happened to be the right thing.
This brings us back to Applejack, who is unique in that she is the only character not required to save a cat. She proves herself to Twilight Sparkle by telling her she is going to drop her off a mountain before she drops her off a mountain. In fact, she is the only pony who is obliged to prove that she has a flaw. Her early episode is all about finding this flaw; she stubbornly refuses to seek help, and suffers for it. And still manages to get a trophy for being awesome.
Coming right down to it, Applejack is the perfect metaphor for the show; it's old fashioned, but it gets the job done precisely because of that.
I think this is why the show spawned such a rabid fandom, seemingly overnight and out of nowhere. Over the past couple of decades, American popular culture has become overtly cynical about nearly everything. Here we have a cartoon with actual morals; not cynical joke morals, but real, concrete morals at the end of each show, exemplified by characters whom the writers have gone out of their way to prove are decent people.
The show feels so fresh because, sadly, we have grown so used to discrediting and discarding what we used to stand for that we have forgotten what it feels like to just root for a group of good guys doing good things.
It reminds us all of our Grammys.