The overwhelmingly cute “My Little Pony: The Movie” (the font squeezes hearts into each “O” and “P,” and the spiders have googly pink eyes) is less a film than a feature-length “very special episode” of the TV hit “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” a kiddie cartoon that’s spent seven seasons insisting that everyone needs a hug (villains, too). Audiences who haven’t followed the glitter-bomb adventures of bossy bookworm Twilight Sparkle, glamorous Rarity, hyperactive Pinkie Pie, introverted Fluttershy, speed demon Rainbow Dash and country girl Applejack don’t get a helping hoof in understanding the land of Equestria — and audiences saddled with cynicism will have to shake it off by the first chords of the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.”
The My Little Pony movie doesn’t argue to be seen in theaters. Director Jayson Thiessen and his main voice actors Ashleigh Ball, Tabitha St. Germain, Tara Strong and Andrea Libman have already done over 100 installments of the show; the bigscreen version is simply longer. The only upgrade in its flat, bright animation is that the giant pupils of its pony, unicorn and pegasus heroines, here blown up to the size of tractor tires, dazzle with ten dots of light, not two. Yet, parents might embrace “My Little Pony: The Movie” on homevideo, if only to test the musical’s opening promise that “doing the Pony puts us in a trance.”
For those who forgot about the toy franchise after it sold 150 million plastic ponies in the ’80s, seven years ago Hasbro handed the reins to Lauren Faust, a writer, director and animator on the cult smash “The Powerpuff Girls.” Faust prettied up the ponies, slimming their legs and snubbing their noses so short they can barely wear sunglasses. More importantly, Faust gave her characters clashing personalities, and centered the series on her six heroines pushing past their differences to become best friends. Instead of easy afterschool platitudes, the show focused on advanced lessons: how to accept flaws, forgive mistakes and melt anger with empathy — sophisticated stuff for an audience with an intended age of seven.
Emphasis on intended. Grown men love ponies, too — so much that they’ve become Equestria’s most infamous groupies. In 2014, the Morgan Spurlock-produced documentary “A Brony Tale” met Iraq vets, motorcycle mechanics and oddball college bros who adore the show. They argue that Brony culture isn’t about immaturity or perversion. It’s a brave battle against the stereotype that boys can’t like pink. To them, what’s truly deviant isn’t the fan art found on 4chan, but a society that armors men against cuddles.
Still, in “My Little Pony: The Movie,” the evil satyr Storm King (Liev Schreiber) has enslaved the ponies of Equestria with leather bridles, a look that unmistakably suggests S&M. As the fillies seek to dethrone him, they’re hunted by Storm King’s minion Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a unicorn with a broken horn that fizzes like a sparkler, who stalks them wearing black rubber. Another punchline has a male character reaching down out of frame to reassuringly pat his crotch.
If the entendres are deliberate, the screenwriting team of Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao and Michael Vogel isn’t confessing — though they do give a sentimental role to Bronies’ favorite character, a cross-eyed klutz that internet fans named Derpy Hoooves. (Hasbro hastily dubbed the awkward pony Muffins.) And the film has plenty of adults-only gags, as when Tempest Shadow summons her incompetent boss, and the lazy and ungrateful old coot arrives to the sound of a dial-up modem. No one born in this millennium would recognize that diss.
The movie has a gut distrust of men, carnivores and earth tones. Feline con man Capper (Taye Diggs) combines all three, so naturally, he lures the ponies to his home with wicked intentions. “Apologies for the state of my litter box,” he purrs. “I wasn’t expecting guests.” Luckily for Twilight Sparkle and friends, “My Little Pony: The Movie” is chiefly under the control of powerful women, from Equestria ruler Princess Celestia (Nicole Oliver) and Queen Novo (Uzo Aduba) of the hippogriffs, to feathered pirate Capt. Celaeno (Zoe Saldana) and pop goddess Songbird Serenade (Sia), who, like the eight-time Grammy nominee who voices her, dyes her mane black and white. It’s the rare cartoon where guys are so sidelined they’re almost nonexistent. The only major male character is a baby dragon named Spike (Cathy Weseluck). While that imbalance shouldn’t feel revolutionary, it does. (Perhaps the seahorses introduced here can advise the girls on asexual reproduction.)
Beat by beat, “My Little Pony: The Movie” is at once clichéd and exceptional. Are there songs about childhood memories and loyalty and play dates? Of course. Does it end in a group hug? Naturally. But the challenges, and their solutions, are emotionally wise. Ponies solve problems by listening, not brawling — fisticuffs are for the Transformers and G.I. Joe. They soothe sinister pirates who threaten to “scar them — emotionally,” and disarm one of Storm King’s goons by comforting him while he cries. Take the MPAA’s PG rating at its word: This is literally “mild action.”
By the time Storm King growls, “I’m so totally over the cute pony thing,” misanthropes might agree. Yet, its sweetness stampedes over the audience’s resistance. “My Little Pony: The Movie” knows it’s made to sell toys, but its heart is earnest and its jokes just shy of self-deprecating. Listen closely during a ponies-in-peril slavery scene and you’ll hear a monster screech what Hasbro execs pray kids will leave the theater howling: “I want all seven for my collection!”