In 2010, animator and writer Lauren Faust approached Hasbro, owners of the My Little Pony toy franchise, about radically updating the saccharine world of Equestria to appeal to a modern audience of young girls interested in more than just cupcakes and rainbows. Not that Faust had a problem with pastel ponies and bright, sunny stories about parties and friendship. Much to the contrary, the former Powerpuff Girls collaborator drew upon her own experiences having grown up with the original My Little Pony toys and cartoon show. She loved the sugar and spice of the original flavor of ponies as much as the next girl, complete with names like “Twilight Sparkle” and “Pinkie Pie,” cotton candy hued skies, and rainbow slides. But even as a little girl in the ’80s, young Lauren had wondered why the Little Ponies didn’t have fantastic adventures of their own. She wanted to see more than the usual “safe” journeys to find a legendary treasure or bring home a missing princess. While playing with her own plastic ponies with purple hair, Faust made them embark upon amazing, epic tales of heroism, with loads of character development, true tests of friendship and loyalty, and complicated puzzles that took real brains to solve, not just a twinkling jewel and the power of love.
Ok, so to be fair, ’80s cartoons for little boys weren’t all that amazing either. The heavily gender-roled Saturday morning offerings of that period were little more than thinly veiled toy commercials. But flash forward to 2010, and after making some character sketches to update her childhood favorites, Faust envisioned a children’s show that combined colorful, playful ponies with real conflicts and challenges. She further envisioned this fourth generation of the My Little Pony franchise (referred to as “Gen 4” or “G4” by the fandom) as a show that could appeal to boys as well as girls, although her primary goal was to ramp up expectations where little girls’ programming had been sorely lacking in adventure and excitement.
Season 7 of Faust’s realized vision, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, wrapped a bit earlier this year. With the recent debut of the movie of the same name, one wonders if the Gen 4 cartoon is coming to a close. (By the way, if you’re new to MLP: FIM, please DON’T start with the movie.)
While a lot has happened over the course of seven seasons, one thing has not changed: the show’s most devoted fans belong to a surprising population that neither Faust nor Hasbro could have predicted. They are the hardcore grown-up Pony fans known as the Bronies. And even if you’re not already familiar with the Bronyhood, by now you have surely guessed where the name “Brony” comes from: these Pony fans are guys! While many adult women such as myself (parents and non-parents alike) also enjoy the show, there is debate over whether we are also considered Bronies, or if the term “Pegasister” is more apt. In any event, the Bronies are undeniably grown-ups, heavily populated by males, and growing rapidly in number, as evidenced by the increasing number of conventions (“Bronycons”), fan websites and related social media pages, and the attention paid to Faust and the entire team of writers, animators, musicians, and voice actors who have made the show a brilliant success.
Faust left the MLP:FIM team at Hasbro after the first season, but her vision and creativity continued to influence the show’s development after her departure. And while my own two little girls, now aged 7 and 5, are starting to put aside their ponies in favor of newer distractions, I find myself more engrossed than ever in the magical world of Equestria, where the Magic of Friendship reins! Oops, I mean reigns!
Why does this reboot of a classic girl’s toy and television series delight me so? And more importantly, how did Bronies become a thing? One can only speculate, but here is my attempt to pin the tail on the pony:
1. The show is highly engaging and entertaining, without being an obvious sales pitch for toys.
It is really difficult to explain in a few words why the show is so enjoyable for kids and grownups alike. The word that first comes to mind is simply “good.” It’s just a really, really GOOD show. What makes any 22-minute show addictively watchable? I’d say the following: interesting characters with a solid mix of strengths and flaws; a compelling plot that draws in the viewer from the outset, and continues with a few twists along the way to keep things exciting; a bad guy/gal we can take seriously; and a good dose of humor to balance out the serious moments.
Season One opens with the story of a young unicorn, the bookish and serious Twilight Sparkle, bemoaning the fact that her magic teacher and mentor is sending her to oversee a festival in another town, instead of allowing her to continue her studies in relative peace and solitude. Twilight soon discovers that the mythical Mare in the Moon, said to have been imprisoned by Princess Celestia over a thousand years ago, is not only real, but is back to rule Equestria in eternal darkness as Nightmare Moon!
Twilight Sparkle, who before now had no interest in making friends or going off on adventures, soon learns that she can’t defeat Nightmare Moon without a little help from some other Little Ponies. Watch the first two episodes of the first season ever to see how the “Mane Six” originally came into being. If you’re not watching it for the friendship lesson, then watch it to learn about the Elements of Harmony and see a baddie get taken down by your average everyday group of ordinary pony friends!
As one commentator put it, “It’s kind of like watching anime.” And while not all anime is appropriate for children, the analogy is a good start.
2. The show contains elements of High Fantasy, appealing to that niche audience, while also offering something for everyone.
While the rest of the season takes on more of a “slice of life” format, the opening and closing of each season of FIM typically offers an overarching plot point woven into the progression of events throughout the entire show’s run. My favorite season finale is the two-part conclusion to Season 4, featuring a classical villain named Tirek. He seeks to overtake Equestria’s ponies by siphoning off all of their power, including the unicorns’ magic, the flying power of the pegasi, and the strength of the earth ponies. Tirek believes he will succeed when he defeats Equestria’s three alicorn princesses — but he learns too late that he overlooked the existence of a fourth princess!
Fantasy lovers of all stripes will love these cornerstone episodes in each season. But most of the in-between episodes are slice-of-life format, offering fun characters, mini-lessons on friendship and family, and a variety of settings throughout the wonderful world of Equestria. These settings include Ponyville as the home base of the Mane Six, the regal and upper crust world of Canterlot, the wild west of Appleloosa, the stylish sophistication of Manehattan, and the city that never sleeps, Las Pegasus, to name just a few. There are also other worlds in and around Equestria that the ponies will occasionally explore, such as the Dragon Lands, Griffonstone a.k.a. The Griffon Kingdom, and … if you consider the Equestria Girls movies as canon, Canterlot High School, an alternative human world of similarly-hued bipedal versions of the ponies of Equestria.
3. The show teaches children Friendship 2.0, including realistic peer conflicts and the tough side of being a good friend.
By far, my favorite aspect of MLP:FIM is the effort the writers have apparently put into offering updated friendship lessons for today’s generation of children and pre-teens. Here’s just a sampling of the show’s modern take on what it means to be a good friend, neighbor, or ally:
Season 3, Episode 4, “One Bad Apple” – The Apple Family has a cousin, Babs Seed, a tough-talking filly from Manehattan that bullies Apple Bloom (little sister to Applejack of the Mane Six) and her friends, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. The trio plan to exact their revenge on Babs, and in the process they learn a tough lesson about what happens when the bullied become bullies themselves.
Season 4, Episode 21, “Testing Testing 1, 2, 3” – Rainbow Dash is the highly athletic and competitive pegasus who wields the magical Element of Loyalty. She’s so close to making it into the elite Wonderbolts Academy (think Top Gun but with pegasi), but she needs to study hard to pass an exam on the history of the Wonderbolts. This episode is one of my favorites, and I really believe the writers tried to depict Dash as having a learning disability, and possibly ADHD. Her friends, particularly the studious and academic Twilight, don’t quite understand that traditional teaching methods don’t work for her. That is, until Twilight sees Dashie in a different light, and figures out how to play to her strengths instead of getting frustrated over her weaknesses.
Season 2, Episode 15, “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” – The Apple Family – Applejack, sister Apple Bloom, brother Big Macintosh, and Granny Smith – have for years peacefully and successfully run Sweet Apple Acres, a major part of Ponyville’s, um, cider economy. One day, two smooth-talking salespony brothers, Flim and Flam, trot into town promising Ponyville’s residents new and improved cider featuring a super-fast, super-high tech machine that threatens to put the Apples out of business for good! I like that the antagonists in this episode are not your typical fantasy world bad guys, but a couple of ordinary unicorns just trying to make a buck. This episode pits tradition against modernity, old-fashioned methods against new-fangled technology, and family values against corporate greed.
Season 5, Episode 21, “Scare Master” – Fluttershy is the sweet pony who loves animals and probably has social anxiety. She would seriously rather stay in her cottage all day with her menagerie of pets than venture out into town on Halloween (sorry, “Nightmare Night”), let alone save Equestria on the regular. Fluttershy tries hilariously to join the rest of her friends in some spoopy fun, just for one night. Even when it does work out, against all odds, Fluttershy declares she is happy her friends enjoy the scary stuff, and that she’s comfortable letting them do it without her. I like the very modern friendship lesson here that best friends need not do everything and be everything together, every second, every day. It might seem obvious to us as adults, but this can be tough lesson for little kids.
Season 5, Episode 11, “Flutter Brutter” – Another Fluttershy episode, where we meet her parents and finally learn the origins of her timid nature. However, this episode features her not so shy brother, and the folly of her parents in letting him live with them rent-free and responsibility-free. It’s a good lesson about tough love being necessary to make a sibling live up to his potential and take action to get his life together.
Season 5, Episode 18, “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” – Oh, did I mention that the music in this show is Disney musical quality, and just fantastic? In this episode, we’re talking about bullying again with little sisters Applebloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, a.k.a. the Cutie Mark Crusaders. But this time, the CMC learn a valuable lesson when they work together to help a bully transform into a good friend. These days it’s not about just standing up to the bullies, but about being proactive in getting to its root cause. I love the lesson learned here, along with the great music and the significance of this episode to the long-running saga of the CMC’s quest to earn their Cutie Marks.
I should mention as a final note that throughout Season 4, each of Twilight’s best friends faces a dramatic test of the friendship element she represents: Honesty, Loyalty, Generosity, Kindness, and Optimism. Twilight Sparkle’s own test of her unifying element of Magic awaits her in the season finale.
Obviously, I recommend this show to just about anypony looking for a show to watch with their kids that isn’t mind-numbingly boring or an annoying toy commercial. What say you? Yea or neigh?