Image: Lionsgate

To non-fans of the long-running My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic series, the show can’t look like much more than a multicolored, glorified toy commercial. This feeling is cemented for anyone who’s ever been assaulted by the MLP aisle at Target, with everything from Twilight Sparkle pajamas to a baby Rainbow Dash with comb-able mane.

Unfortunately, the series’ new big-screen outing will not do much to dissuade those non-believers. MLP: FIM definitely has its moments, cementing the importance of friendship while these ponies grow up and discover their own awesomeness. And the series’ setup of not just one or two but six lead female characters continues to be a standout in the world of children’s programming. But there’s little new territory covered on the big screen, even though the Mane 6 (Twilight Sparkle, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Rarity, and Fluttershy) head out on a trouble-filled journey outside their beloved home of Equestria.

Twilight Sparkle, now the princess of friendship, is freaking out about hosting, what else, a friendship festival (including a concert by a Sia-voiced look-alike pony), when the candy-colored town is invaded by evil interlopers on behalf of the Storm King (a hammy but enjoyable Liev Schreiber). Top-billed Emily Blunt, abandoning her native accent for some reason, offers the movie’s most interesting character as Storm King assistant Tempest Shadow, an enemy pony with a healthy amount of menace. The troubling darkness of the invaders is augmented by the big advantage of this big-screen effort: much more detailed animation. The thick lines that outline the ponies in the series are replaced by much more delicate details—like heart-shaped hooves or an eerie reflection of the Storm King in Tempest’s eyes—done in hand-drawn animation enhanced by some CGI and 3-D effects. The result is a much more astonishing Equestria than we’re used to seeing, making it all the more foreboding when the village goes black.

As the ponies go on the lam to find help to save their town, we also get to see the animators dive into non-equine animals for a change. Taye Diggs revisits his Rent roots to portray Capper, a savvy streetwise cat. Kristin Chenoweth, another musical vet, and an impressive Uzo Aduba pull off an underwater hippogriff village. That ocean-based segment also offers the movie’s best animation, with the Mane 6 becoming mer-ponies in a segment that brings to mind similar show-stoppers in movies like The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, this movie’s tune, “One Small Thing,” is no “Under The Sea.” In an age when Lin-Manuel Miranda is penning Disney songs, the ponies’ odes aren’t likely to make anyone rush out to get the soundtrack; even the Sia song fails to stand out.

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The underwater effects are impressive, and the animation is certainly richer than the traditional flatness of the regular series, but you have to wonder to what use it’s being put. Fantastical underwater village: great. Bleak, desolate desert or dusty pirate ship: why? Also, most of the main characters get their moments, with Rainbow Dash inspiring a pirate brigade led by Zoe Saldana, Rarity styling up Diggs’ Capper cat, and Pinkie Pie throwing parties, because that’s what she does. But in this almost 100-minute movie, Applejack doesn’t do much more than push some cider, and Spike’s crush on Rarity is reduced to a mere blush; although Fluttershy grabs a nice therapy moment with an evil henchman, you get the feeling that some ponies are being left out.

The message is almost a My Little Pony mantra: The ponies will quarrel and then come back together, as they know they need each other to succeed, if not survive. It’s a valuable lesson for kids that friends can fight and make up, but it’s one MLP has told many times before. A subplot about a pony being snubbed for looking somewhat different could have been a valuable plot point here, instead of being shoe-horned-in late in the movie.

My Little Pony: The Movie tries to get meta on the sickly sweetness of its subject matter. Storm King complains, “I’m so totally over the cute pony thing,” and Spike wonders at the end if they’ve finally totaled up all the friends who have helped them along the way. But these nods only hint at what a valuable deconstruction of MLP could entail. For a worthwhile big-screen take on the My Little Pony franchise, 2013’s limited release Equestria Girls did a better job by transforming the ponies into teenage girls, eliminating the metaphor altogether. The kids will still love this one, but don’t be surprised if they then drag you down that Target aisle, searching for the newly available Pinkie Pie Sea Pony (now with motorized tail!).

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