Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I used to wonder what friendship could be!

Alright, let's deal with it out in the open. I sure enjoy me some My Little Ponies: Friendship Is Magic. It's no Avatar: The Last Airbender, sure, but it's a bright, sweet, hopeful show with a varied cast of likeable female protagonists. I like the characters, the dumb jokes, the cute songs, and even the pleasant ritual of writing a letter to Celestia - i.e. delivering a moral - at the end of every episode.

The morals are the thing I want to talk about just at the moment. So morals at the end of the episode are the worst thing in Western animation, amirite? You know how every story is going to end a few minutes after it starts because the lesson is always obvious from the premise. Worse, moral lessons can be the death of humor and of human truth. Worst of all is what TV Tropes calls a "broken aesop," a moral that doesn't actually follow from the story you've just told - all too common, in my experience.

What MLP:FIM does very well is build the lesson into the story, and support it through out. Actually, sometimes the lesson is there, but the end-of-episode letter to Celestia misses it, or at least doesn't capture everything that happened in the episode. That's part of the genius, though: sometimes the real lesson is built into the very premise of the episode. In "Winter Wrap Up," for instance, the stated lesson is "Everypony has hidden talents." To me, though, that's hardly the main thing the episode teaches. The big lesson is right there in the musical number at the very start of the episode, before the characters have started learning anything.

It's all there. "Winter Wrap Up" is one of the most heartfelt odes to work I personally have ever seen. Every pony has a job, something they do, that they excel at; every job is valuable, and every pony is proud of, even excited about, their job. Rainbow Dash loves to see the sun's "warmth and beauty... glow" after she chases all the clouds out of the sky. Fluttershy takes great satisfaction in waking up the animals "so quietly and nice." Applejack's pride in feeding the whole town is palpable. Twilight Sparkle desperately wants in on this work. "What does everypony do?" she asks pleadingly, earnestly pledging to "help with all of my heart" and to "do my best today." And yes, then there's a plot about her finding her unique skill that lets her make a really great contribution, but to me, the central lesson has already been taught: work is good. Work helps people, and doing good work feels good, and doing the right work for you makes you the person you want to be. That's the real lesson of the episode, and I think it's one we could all stand to take to heart, honestly.

I don't mean to give the impression that the show is a never-ending font of enduring wisdom. Some of the episodes and lessons are silly, or simple, typical children's tv fare. The episode where they realize they all saw the same rainbow (actually a rainboom, don't ask) as children is cute and all, but "Friends share a special connection, sometimes even before they meet" is more sentimental BS than a real lesson to carry close to your heart. My favorite episodes, though, are the ones where I think the show is going to veer off into that most horrible of sins, a broken aesop, and then surprises me by really committing to their lesson. Take a recent episode, "The Mysterious Mare Do Well."

In this episode, hot-blooded pegasus Rainbow Dash, widely regarded as the most awesome of the Mane Cast, makes a habit of using her incredible flying skills to help other ponies in Ponyville. After a few dramatic feats, she notices that she's getting cheers and a big fan club, and it goes to her head. She starts milking it, showing off and leading her own cheers. Her friends start to get frustrated with her showboating.

Enter Mare Do Well, a mysterious masked superhero who seems to come out of nowhere and manages to outdo Rainbow Dash in a few successive crises. Mare Do Well seems to be stronger, faster; she can fly just as well, and do unicorn magic on top of all of it. The town's adulation shifts to Mare Do Well, and Rainbow Dash makes it worse with her grandstanding for attention, which the other ponies find more and more annoying.

Mare Do Well's identity is, of course, a complete non-mystery, especially as she starts revealing more and more different skills: all of Rainbow Dash's friends are wearing the mask at different times, solving problems perfectly suited to their own particular skills. I started to doubt the episode at this point, for two reasons. First, Rainbow Dash is a really cool, strong character, and I hate to see her take it on the chin over and over. Second, I was dreading the inevitable reveal, where her friends take off their masks and totally humiliate Rainbow Dash in the name of "helping her learn," i.e. cutting her down to size.

I should have had more faith. There is a scene where the ponies gently hint to Rainbow that maybe there's something she can learn from Mare Do Well's anonymous heroism, but it's not carried too far. In the end, Rainbow learns their identities because she chases down Pinkie Pie and tears off her mask, not because the other ponies reveal themselves to teach her a lesson. Once she realizes that they are her rival, her friends do share a lesson with her, eventually summed up as "It's great to be good at something, but it's important to act with grace and humility." The difference is in motivation.

See, the ponies didn't plan for Rainbow Dash to learn who they were so that she'd learn she wasn't better than them; their only plan was to set a good example for her to follow, and to do some anonymous good deeds in the process. They get excited about their own personal contributions to the plan, but without asking for praise. As they explain their motivations to her, they affirm three separate times that she should be proud of her abilities ("Of course we want you to be a hero!" "It's natural to celebrate your accomplishments," and "It's great to be really good at something,"). They just wanted her to realize, from Mare Do Well's example, that she had gone a little bit overboard with her own hype. It's not a complicated lesson, but the sincerity with which it's delivered, with no meanness of judgement on any of the characters' part, really sells it in a way that I think is pretty unique to this iteration of My Little Ponies.

For the record: the pony I admire the most is Applejack, and the pony I find the most entertaining is Rarity, but my favorite pony is definitely Fluttershy.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of My Little Pony, have you heard of the Dubtrot genre of music?

    http://kottke.org/12/01/dubtrot-my-little-pony-dubstep

    Blew my mind. A good example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXWgGw0-MjE&feature=related

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