Of Ponies and Bronies

The Transformers may be raking in the box office gold and G.I. Joe battled COBRA in the multiplexes, but while those once-upon-the-eighties Hasbro cartoon shows made the leap from TV cartoon to big screen live action, the diminutive equines collectively known as My Little Pony have returned in a new animated series that has surprised a lot of people. To put it simply, The Hub Channel’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is one hip show.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic group shot. Courtesy of The Hub.

The Transformers may be raking in the box office gold and G.I. Joe battled COBRA in the multiplexes, but while those once-upon-the-eighties Hasbro cartoon shows made the leap from TV cartoon to big screen live action, the diminutive equines collectively known as My Little Pony have returned in a new animated series that has surprised a lot of people.

To put it simply, The Hub Channel’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is one hip show.

Creator Lauren Faust.

Creator Lauren Faust.

MLP:FiM is the creation of Lauren Faust, an animation veteran whose career began as an animator on 1990’s features like Cats Don’t Dance and Quest for Camelot. After directing a stack of Powerpuff Girls episodes, Faust hit her stride as Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends’ head writer and supervising producer. (And in all likelihood, the visual inspiration for Frankie, the show’s red-haired teenage problem-solver.)

You can’t mention Pony to some people without images of the original, for-preadolescent-girls-only 1980’s series* popping into their heads (“why on Earth would you be watching that?”), but a quick look at MLP:FiM’s attractive character design and Flash animation, clever scripting and off-kilter characterizations quickly convinces them this Pony is a completely different animal.

It was a project of Faust’s own that led her to riding herd on Hasbro’s pony-filled paddock: “It was actually pretty serendipitous. I met with Hasbro Studios’ Lisa Licht to pitch one of my original concepts to her as a potential animated series, a show based on my ‘Galaxy Girls’ characters [milkywayandthegalaxygirls.com].

“I told her about my background and showed her some art and an animatic I’d already produced. At the end of my pitch she pulled a My Little Pony DVD out of nowhere – Princess Promenade, one of the more recent Pony videos from 2006 and asked me if I liked My Little Pony, which happened to be my absolutely favorite toy of my childhood. From what I understand it was completely on the fly – it had just occurred to her at that moment from seeing my Galaxy Girls material that I might be a good fit for My Little Pony. She asked me to look at some DVDs and see if I could come up with some ideas where to take a new version of the franchise.”

Faust’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is an amalgam of existing and new Pony characters that retains and updates elements of previous series’ continuities while adding a few of its own. The central character in FiM  is Twilight Sparkle, an overly intellectual unicorn sent by Equestria’s Princess Celestia to the town of Ponyville to get her horn out of her books and make some real-world (if a realm filled with magic and talking animals can be considered a real world) friends.

Sounds a bit icky so far, but stay with me.

Twilight makes the acquaintance of a quintet of locals who become her pony posse: palomino farmgirl Applejack, high-octane Rainbow Dash, ditsy party girl Pinkie Pie, kind-to-animals Fluttershy and fashion plate Rarity.

FiM episodes all have a moral lesson, spelled out in the letter Twilight sends to Celestia at the end of each episode. Said lesson never overwhelms the storytelling, which is where the show explodes expectations – and earned it a sizeable adult (and male) following in the process.

At first glance Twilight and her friends might represent female stereotypes (archetypes? role models?), but they’re also capable of going to extremes and breaking character, turning obsessive or steam-coming-out-of-their-ears choleric at unexpected moments. Cartoon and pop-culture references abound: anvils fall on heads, Pinkie Pie pursues a fleeing pony with Pepe Le Pew-style hops, Twilight’s magical abilities earn her a spot in “Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns” (an X-Men reference a Marvel Comics fan can spot a dozen channels away), the 2001 monolith makes a cameo appearance (complete with a Zarathustra musical sting), a pack of canine villains are named (undoubtedly by a David Bowie fan) the Diamond Dogs…

They’re secret signals, hidden messages letting animation fans know the show’s creators are pop-culture geeks not unlike themselves. Faust credits the writers she’s known and worked with since her days on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, but it’s impossible to imagine a show created by someone actively involved with Fosters and Powerpuff Girls not to have a higher than average hip quotient.

Photo courtesy of The Hub.

Faust’s character designs embrace rather than fight Flash animation’s 2D look. The ponies are rendered in shading-free flat colors with their outlines darker tints of their body color; their manes and tails are intentionally rendered as curving surfaces completely lacking in depth. (They more resemble wood shavings curling out of a carpenter’s plane than the bouffant ‘dos sported by previous pony generations.) “[Hasbro] was worried the hair on the ponies weren’t elaborate and fancy enough,” Faust recalls. “That raises production problems: the more inner line work you have on hair and when you start animating individual hairs, unless you’re on a feature animation budget it’s just not going to turn out right. I turned them around and now we have very simple hair, but it moves beautifully.”

The pony’s heads are essentially the same size as their bodies, with enormous eyes that would put any anime girl to shame and teeny-tiny muzzles that disappear when viewed head-on. By contrast male ponies (far more numerous than in previous MLP series and possibly a contributing factor to the show’s embrace by guys) sport prominent muzzles and even elaborate facial hair.

MLP: FiM’s enthusiastic adult fans (many of whom have adopted pony personas while the males have taken to calling themselves ‘bronies’) are already the stuff of legends: websites like equestriadaily.com (14.8 million page views as of this writing and increasing at the rate of three per second!), ponychan.net and ponibooru.413chan.net are overflowing with fan art (ranging from grade school quality to astonishingly on- or beyond-model), stories (likewise ranging from simple homages to dystopic imaginings of a pony uprising against Princess Celestia), debates and discussion.

Fans have seized on crowd scene ponies, turning several into pony celebrities to the point of earning them more screen time; case in point, ‘Derpy Hooves:’ “Yeah, that was a character that came from the fans,” laughs supervising director Jayson Thiessen. “It was kind of a mistake in the background. Someone along the way drew one character with crossed eyes. It was way in the background and nobody noticed it. When we went online to see what people were saying about the show we saw characters extracted out of the background and we started to personify them.

“The Derpy character was sort of the most popular, and we liked her too. It was like, ‘wow, we weren’t even thinking about this.’ As production was going along, we thought – with Lauren’s blessing – maybe we can make that pony a little cross-eyed, make her derpy again. We’ll keep her in there like a little Easter Egg for people to catch.” (And then there’s the pony with the hourglass ‘cutie mark’ on his rump and an imagined resemblance to David Tennant the fans have dubbed ‘Dr. Whooves’…)

What’s most impressive though are the fans’ homemade videos, mash-ups of show footage expertly edited to everything from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” to dialog from The Matrix. The Hub, the new cable channel co-owned by Hasbro and Discovery and home to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic returned the favor with a mash-up of their own: an on-air promo slicing and dicing show footage to “Equestria Girls” (a take-off on Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg’s “California Gurls”) salutes the show’s unexpected audience with the shout-out lyric “our bronies hang out too (come on bronies) because they know we’re awesome fillies.”

“I don’t like that perception out there that for girls means ‘lame’ and not cool,” Faust sums up. “I thought you could make something for girls that you could make it fun, make it funny, make it entertaining, make it compelling, make it exciting. I think we succeeded so well that people watch it and recognize that and get past the fact that it’s about rainbow-colored ponies and enjoy it and embrace it – and admit that they enjoy it.”

In other words, rock on bronies!

* Full disclosure: from 1981 through ’86 I was more or less gainfully employed by Sunbow Productions, the entity that created the original Transformers, G.I. Joe and My Little Pony series.

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