Visually plain and ploddingly paced, My Little Pony: The Movie suggests four episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic smushed together with a Sia music video tacked on at the end. Things get off to a cutesy start, with a pinkish-purple sparkle outlining the film’s title before the camera zooms through fluffy clouds down to the pastel paradise of Ponyville as a version of “We Got the Beat” with rewritten lyrics about ponies blasts on the soundtrack. The ponies’ kingdom of Equestria is established as a quasi-matriarchal utopia ruled by a council of unicorns, including protagonist Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), the princess of friendship. But the land is soon threatened by the evil Storm King (Liev Schreiber) and his minion, Tempest (Emily Blunt), setting Twilight Sparkle and her pals on a quest to save the kingdom.
At this point, My Little Pony slips into the same doggedly formulaic hero’s-journey plotting employed by so many contemporary animated films aimed at young kids, from Trolls to Minions to Smurfs: The Lost Village. The film is a particularly leaden application of the template, forcing its one-note characters out of the glittery confines of Ponyville and into a series of drab environments, from a desert to an old-timey village. With the continued dominance of 3D animation, it should be refreshing to see a theatrical release utilizing a more traditional 2D style, even if it’s still largely crafted on computers, but aside from a few vividly rendered facial expressions, the visuals here often seem indifferently executed, with sparse, generic backgrounds and cheap-looking depth-of-field effects.
My Little Pony only really perks to life during its musical numbers, a bouncy assortment of self-empowerment anthems whose stylistic variety evokes Disney classics like Aladdin and The Lion King without feeling like mere mimicry. And adding an appealing subtext to the story is a certain coy misandry, as the female characters are routinely screwed over when they make the mistake of relying on male characters to help them; despite the film’s paeans to the importance of friendship, “Don’t trust strange men” may as well be the prime moral lesson here. But this little jolt of subversive energy is overwhelmed by the film’s banality, repetitiveness, and—at almost 100 minutes—punishing length. When late in the film, the Storm King complains, “I’m so over the cute pony thing,” it’s hard not to agree with him.