Sunday, October 14, 2012

Hiiiiiiiiii Giiiiiiiiiirls... (Mare in the Moon/Elements of Harmony)

Celestia fires rainbows and bubbles at Nightmare Moon
Celestia used Bubble Beam! It's super effective!
Before we get to the ponies, let's start by fixing our position in time.

It's Sunday, October 10 through Friday, October 22, 2010. Bruno Mars, whoever that is, tops the Billboard charts both weeks. The top movies at the weekend box office are, consecutively, The Social Network, Jackass 3-D, and Paranormal Activity 2. The first of those is going to matter in a couple thousand words.

In other news, anti-gay protestors and police clash at Serbia's first gay pride parade in a decade. The Nobel prize winners for the year are announced. The U.S. lifts a temporary ban on deep-water oil drilling, which was started in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill six months prior.The last of the Chilean miners trapped in the Copiapo accident is rescued. President Obama promises to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and allow gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the military. Australia gets its first saint, Mary MacKillop. The Chancellor of Germany speaks against multiculturalism, which isn't at all worrisome. And most importantly for our discussion today, WikiLeaks releases secret documents that reveal U.S. war crimes in Iraq, including the torture and execution of POWs and the murder of hundreds of civilians. No, really, that has something to do with My Little Pony. Bear with me.

Anyway, in TV Land, fledgling network the Hub innocently airs the first two episodes of its new show, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, with apparently no idea of the force it has unleashed.

It's worth taking a moment to consider what it means that the Hub was a young network at the time--it launched the same day that "Mare in the Moon" aired, as a matter of fact. Young networks often struggle to find enough programming to fill the schedule, and generally respond in two ways: snatching up rerun rights oldie-but-goodie syndicated shows that, for one reason or another, have fallen into bargain-price territory, and greenlighting risky or experimental shows at which more established networks would turn up their noses. In the Hub's case, the highlights of the first category included Doogie Howser, M.D., The Wonder Years, the live-action Batman series, Batman the Animated Series, and Batman Beyond. The highlight of the second category was, well, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

But wait, you say. How can MLP:FIM be considered experimental or risky? It's a revival and a reboot in the midst of an age of revivals and reboots, backed by a major corporate powerhouse, and tied to an ever-popular, thirty-year-old toy line!

The short answer: It doesn't suck.

Even though it really, really should. It has all the elements for a complete disaster: It's a blatant cash-grab, remaking a show about a major 80s toy pretty much entirely because Michael Bay's craptacular Transformers movies made bank. It's a show designed around a toy line, instead of the other way around, a strategy which, in the entire history of children's television up to 2010, produced non-sucky results exactly once (Pokemon, if you were wondering). Plus, since children's television executives appear to be utterly convinced that interest in dramatic conflicts, action, humor, and varied characterization are all functions of the Y chromosome, cartoons for girls almost always suck, too.

And yet, from the moment the cold opening of "Mare in the Moon" starts, MLP:FIM announces for all the world to see that it's doing something new: Barely animated storybook images accompany a narrator as she recites the ponies' eclipse myth: the Moon Goddess, angered by the failure of the ponies to show her proper respect and appreciation, becomes a dark and terrible being who briefly imprisons the Sun Goddess and plunges the world into darkness. She is Fenrir devouring the sun, the cave that swallows Amaterasu, the primordial terror that the sun has vanished and will never return. She is Nightmare Moon... and she is coming back.

That's not a story that Jem or Trollz could ever even dream of attempting. It's a story previous incarnation of MLP might flirt with, but they could never do it justice. As daring openings for a cartoon go, this is up there with Avatar the Last Airbender starting us off with genocide, or Batman the Animated Series' famous opening "credits" in which the name of the show is never stated or shown and its main character is shown for only seconds.

That opening gives way to a credit sequence that, for a moment, seems like a return to typical MLP form, reiterating the sweet, gentle song from the first cartoon and pairing it with a balloon drifting through a blue sky with white fluffy clouds--but after the first two lines, Rainbow Dash smashes through the clouds and the music switches to a much more energetic, modern pop song that emphasizes fun and adventure. From there we get a short scene of Twilight Sparkle walking through Canterlot, ignoring friendly overtures from other ponies while she ponders the myth she just read.

As I said in the introduction, one of the things any work must necessarily be about is itself. This sounds trivial, but here is one of the cases where it's important: Part of the job of a series premier is to attract viewers who will stay with the show. To accomplish this, the premier has to tell the viewers what kind of a show this is going to be. The first few minutes of "Mare in the Moon" accomplish this admirably, switching from eclipse myth to reference to the original show to new theme song to a small, but very effective, character scene. In other words, this is a show that can do a grand, myth scale when it wants to, but grounds itself in its characters first and foremost. It is a show that respects those elements of past MLP that deserve respect, but is unafraid to break out on its own. And most importantly, it is a show willing to take risks.

As "Mare in the Moon" and "Elements of Harmony" continue, they accomplish the basic job of a premier: Introduce the characters to the audience and each other, give them a crisis to resolve, and show their relationships form. The episodes perform these tasks admirably and with an attention to detail that will characterize the series from here out. I'll point out just a couple of examples of wonderful details that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere, because if I flagged everything we'd never get to The Social Network and WikiLeaks:
  • In response to learning that Twilight Sparkle is from Canterlot, Rarity reveals that she loves Canterlot and always dreamed of going there. What we can see of Rarity's shop in these shots is purple and gold, and Rarity herself is white. The color scheme of Canterlot at the beginning of the episode? Purple, gold, and white.
  • In the first episode, the only times we see the Mane Six gathered together, Pinky Pie is in the center of the shot. This makes sense, as she is friends with everyone in Ponyville and therefore a friend to all the others, while we know from later episodes that they were not all friends with each other before this episode (at the very least, Rarity and Applejack were not friends). By the end of the second episode, Twilight Sparkle is at the center of all group shots, showing that she is now the one who is friends with all of the other five.
  • In the tale of Nightmare Moon, we see Luna and Celestia forming a yin-yang symbol. This foreshadows the resolution of the story, in which balance is restored not by destroying Luna/darkness, but by reuniting her with her sister Celestia/light.
One apparent beautiful detail is actually much more: At the climax of the second episode, Twilight Sparkle activates the Elements of Harmony in a sequence that draws heavily on the iconography of magical girls. Specifically, the way the ponies pose, the spinning motion of the stone shards, the way new clothes (well, jewelry) materialize on the ponies, and the fact that Nightmare Moon just stands there off-camera while all this is happening is strongly reminiscent of the typical magical girl transformation sequence.

For those not familiar with anime, "magical girls" is a genre in which adolescent girls with magical superpowers fight evil, empowered by attributes Japanese culture associates with femininity, such as love, friendship, and beauty. The most famous magical girl shows in the United States are, of course, Sailor Moon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both shows belong to a subgenre in which the magical girl is part of a very closely knit team of friends, and able to magically weaponize those bonds of friendship to defeat evil (often  metaphorically, but sometimes explicitly, as in the fourth season of Buffy).

Most magical girls (though not Buffy) have a recurring "transformation sequence" in which they activate their powers and their superhero costumes coalesce from light around them, just as happens with the ponies' Elements of Harmony in the show. And of course, weaponizing friendship is exactly what the Elements of Harmony do.

In most times and places (the 1980s, for example), depicting friendship as a magical force that spits rainbows and defeats evil would be unbearably cheesy and twee. In 2010, however, it's actually a very powerful statement, because of what's happening in the world and what's about to happen.

Consider the Elements of Harmony: Honesty, Laughter, Generosity, Kindness, Loyalty, and Friendship. (Yes, I know it's Magic. But the title of the show tells us Friendship Is Magic, so we're substituting it in.) Let's unpack how each of these manifest in the second episode:
  • Honesty is open communication that can be trusted.
  • Laughter is a positive force that keeps otherwise overwhelming terrors at bay.
  • Generosity is a willingness to help strangers out of a primarily aesthetic sense that things should be better than they are.
  • Kindness is a desire to understand others, learn their needs and struggles, and comfort them based on that knowledge.
  • Loyalty is not to a cause or a nation but an obligation to individuals.
  • Friendship is a powerful force that binds together individuals in communities and networks, and both transforms them and empowers them to transform the world around them.

Is there any better statement of the values which define the Internet generation at its best? Webs of people, friends of friends of friends stretching across the world, in constant communication, willing to extend a hand of friendship to a total stranger halfway around the world. Trying to understand one another, trying to make the world a better place because it should be better, using tools like e-mail, texting, Twitter, and Facebook (told you The Social Network would show up again) to connect, form and maintain friendships, spread ideas, and organize grassroots like never before.

And these lines of informal communication, in 2010, are rapidly becoming one of the most powerful forces in the world. Technology created to let friends share pictures of their cats also allows secrets to pass quietly from hand to hand until they can at last be passed into the light by WikiLeaks. Activists and protestors can pass messages from friend to friend to friend and build movements tens of thousands of people strong. Two months after Twilight Sparkle and her friends stop Nightmare Moon, the Arab Spring begins. Weaponized friendship brings down the governments of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. A year after "Elements of Harmony," the same power of weaponized friendship, in the form of Occupy Wall Street, forcibly yet nonviolently transforms the American political conversation from deficit reduction to job creation.

As I said in the last post, any work is necessarily about the world in which it was created. "Mare in the Moon" and "Elements of Harmony," by siding with the power of weaponized friendship against the darkness, stand with WikiLeaks against torture and murder. They stand with the Middle Eastern revolutions before they even happen. They stand with Occupy. They stand, in short, with the revolutionary arm of the Internet generation, with the networked, young, and liberal, against the entrenched, the old, the conservative, and the powerful.

Heady stuff for a bunch of candy-colored ponies made to entertain five-year-old girls and their parents, isn't it? But nonetheless it is there in the premier, waiting for anyone who cares to look.

Magic can be defined as the power of symbols, words, and ideas to change the world. If so, then here the ponies present us with a great truth. Here we have the first reason why so many young adults embrace the show so enthusiastically.

In this time, in this place, for us, friendship really is magic.

4 comments:

  1. "Two months after Twilight Sparkle and her friends stop Nightmare Moon, the Arab Spring begins. Weaponized friendship brings down the governments of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen."

    Weaponized friendship plus Islamic religious and, in case of Libya, tribal inner struggles and lots and lots of conventional weapons.

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    1. I don't see how either the inner struggles or the weapons are relevant to the novel way in which the protests were organized.

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  2. "It's a show designed around a toy line, instead of the other way around, a strategy which, in the entire history of children's television up to 2010, produced non-sucky results exactly once (Pokemon, if you were wondering)."

    I take it you didn't like Beast Wars? Though for the life of me, I'm not sure why not...

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    1. Never seen it. I did see scattered episodes of the original Transformers cartoon, as well as the one with Mini-Bots and the currently airing one. Not remotely impressed with any of them.

      I've had a few other examples of exceptions pointed out to me, and so I don't really believe that sentence is true anymore--still, good merchandise-driven cartoons are extremely rare and sucky ones quite common, which was the real point.

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