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Getting Off on the Right Hoof: How “My Little Pony” Figured Out the Right Way to do a Great Children’s Cartoon

24 Apr

The cast of colorful characters from "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic."

By Hannah Rothman

The Advent of Ponydom

Let me begin this piece with a confession: I was never into the My Little Pony franchise in any way, shape, or form as a child. I didn’t collect the toys or watch any of the cartoons or play games with them at my friends’ houses. If I wanted to collect and watch and play with fictional creatures, 9-year-old me would take Pokémon over ponies any day. Being of the female persuasion, however, I was obligated by society to at least know that My Little Pony existed. Before last year my only two interactions (in the loosest sense of the word) with the franchise were the “Apocalypse Pony” sketch on Robot Chicken and the Nostalgia Chick’s review of My Little Pony: The Movie on ThatGuyWithTheGlasses.com.

While the former was a clever comedy bit parodying the toy commercials with Ponies representing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the latter was an honest critique of why the franchise, particular the cartoon, was rather weak and mindless entertainment whose primary goal was making money off of gullible little girls. It more or less confirmed every generalization I’d had about the franchise up to that point. But, as with many things in life, that was about to change…

In late 2010, one of my typical rounds of bouncing aimlessly around the Internet landed me on a certain page of one of my favorite websites, TV Tropes. It was a show page for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I sighed internally. “They made another one? Really?” I thought to myself and, without bothering to read the blurb on the side, departed for websites that made me slightly less worried for the fate of humanity. It wasn’t much later that I discovered a curious phenomenon that, to put it mildly, left me rather perplexed: Friendship is Magic had become popular on the Internet. Very popular. As in, scads-of-fanart-and-macros-and-music-videos-all-over-the-place popular.

Then I realized just how many fans this new series had. Male fans. Adult male fans. And from what I could see, they loved Friendship is Magic honestly and un-ironically. Seeing this, I was more than willing to start applauding this magical new show that was getting grown men to throw their hands up in the air and go, “screw you, gender roles! I’m a grown man and I love ponies!” But I still didn’t understand why or how this new iteration of an iconic but bland cash cow was so…good. It wasn’t until one of my best guy-friends started watching it and raving to me about it in person that I finally conceded, “okay, I should probably start watching this show eventually.” Sure enough, one day over summer break I decided that animated ponies would probably be a great antidote to the crushingly dark and depressing current season of Doctor Who and I sat down to watch the first several episodes. Within a week I’d finished the entire first season and had to know when the second one would start.

What Went Right?

So, with all that said, I still don’t completely understand how this show drew in such an enormous fanbase from the murkiest depths of the Internet (thank you, 4chan) and from far outside its target demographic in general, but I definitely see how Friendship is Magic succeeds at being a genuinely well-made program for kids and parents to watch together. Firstly is the series’ self-aware sense of humor. In other words, it knows that it’s a show about colorful ponies learning lessons about friendship and it isn’t afraid to parody itself on a regular basis. A character randomly bursting into song is likely to be met with blank stares by their peers. The adorable and charming woodland creatures have their limits and will ravage all the vegetation in the town if provoked.

The ponies don’t just announce to the audience “what did we learn about friendship today” at the end of each episode, they have to fill out regular reports about it (one episode even revolves around one pony being so afraid of turning in her friendship report late that she goes around causing havoc for her to solve and learn a lesson from, gradually driving herself crazy in the process.) Sometimes they do include an honest musical number that’s meant to be taken seriously, but these are actually well-done and enjoyable songs more often than not. Even so, the ones that fall flat can still be taken as the show having fun and exaggerating itself.

Speaking of which, the production values on Friendship is Magic are really spot-on. Many Flash-animated series I see on television irritate me because of how aware I am, just by looking at them, that they were made on a computer. Friendship is Magic manages to overcome this with (literal) flying colors. One of the first things I noticed about the show, even before I started watching it properly, was how in love with the style I was. This was a series that I really enjoyed just looking at.

Unlike the previous generations of My Little Pony’s which employed a semi-realistic but “deformed” design for the ponies, Friendship is Magic created its own highly stylized and fluid design that catches the eye with bright and rich colors and distinguishes each pony by much more than just the pictures on their flanks. Still, good art alone does not a great show make, which brings me to…

Just Who Are These Ponies, Anyway?

Easily Friendship is Magic’s strongest element is its characterization. The focus of the series is the day-to-day escapades of a band of six fillies who become best friends after defeating an evil queen together in the opening two-parter. Still, many episodes focus on just a couple ponies or their interactions with the many members of the supporting cast instead of the “Mane Six” all at once. Most importantly, the group is diverse and each pony has a distinct and detailed personality: Twilight Sparkle, the initial protagonist, is a hard-working student who loves books and studying and is the primary deliverer of friendship-messages in the first season. Applejack, the archetypal cowgirl, is very outgoing and reliable. Rainbow Dash, the star athlete, enjoys competition and can be rather full of herself. Rarity devotes herself wholly to fashion and beauty but always sets aside time for her friends. Fluttershy can be timid with fellow ponies but loves and cares for all wildlife. Pinkie Pie is a hyperactive scatterbrain who will throw a party for any and every occasion.

These, of course, are just the Mane Six on the surface and continued watching of the show reveals various levels of depth to each character. These aren’t just ponies who exist in a random town solely for the sake of delivering a plot and then a concluding message. They’re all, for lack of a better word, people. They have hopes, dreams, goals, families, and even jobs. This last item was one of the details that impressed me the most about Friendship is Magic: the fact that the ponies are all active and productive members of society. Twilight Sparkle is basically doing the pony equivalent of study abroad, Applejack works on her family’s apple orchard, Pinkie Pie works at the town bakery, Fluttershy does animal care of all kinds, and Rainbow Dash is always training hard to perfect her flying skills.

On that note I want to take this opportunity to pay special attention to Rarity because, out of all the ponies, she was the one who impressed me the most. I went into Friendship is Magic fully expecting her to be the token fashionista and drama queen, and I was both right and wrong. Many other girl-targeted shows I’ve seen with a group of female leads seem to have an unfortunate habit of making sure that no matter how badass the girls are, all of them will still have a fixation on clothes or boys or shopping or some combination thereof. This is not at all the case with Friendship is Magic, but I could see that Rarity was meant to fill that niche single-hooved and minus the badassery.

However, the way they handled this was really quite remarkable. Rarity’s key trait is her fashion and design sense, but she’s not someone who goes and maxes out her credit card at the mall every episode and scoffs at other girls for being unfashionable. On the contrary, she’s a shop-owner. She runs her own business, making every dress herself. She enjoys it and is very good at it. Multiple episodes show her rushing around and being unable to hang out with her friends or look after her little sister because she has a large order she needs to complete by the next morning. She goes out of her way to make sure her friends are in good shape. In short, the girl works hard and it’s just so refreshing to see a style-obsessed character express their love in a productive and non-shallow way.

Practical Application of Ponies

On a personal level, the moment when I knew My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was the real deal and not just a temporary guilty pleasure came when I realized that I wished I’d had this show and these characters to learn lessons from when I was younger. Twilight Sparkle, I found, reminds me of a slightly younger me in a lot of ways. She’s a model student who’s quite talented but more interested in books than social interactions, but still happy to have those interactions once she gets to know people. Also, she lives in a library that’s also a giant tree, which in my eyes is just awesome. Then came the episode “Boast Busters.”

A highly self-obsessed pony named Trixie comes to town and sets up a stage to show off her unicorn magic and let everyone know how much better she is than them. Twilight’s friends encourage her to use her own magic talents to put Trixie in her place, but Twilight is too afraid of being labeled a show-off herself and adamantly refuses to take action (eventually, of course, she does and winds up saving the town from a giant bear.) The friendship lesson at the end was “it’s okay to be proud of your talents and there are times when it’s appropriate to show them off.”

Here, in a single episode of a kid’s show, was the very image of one of my biggest insecurities. Too many times in my life I’ve found myself unwilling to perform to the best of my ability for fear of being called a self-absorbed show-off, even when applying for jobs. Sometimes I wonder how I would have thought of myself differently if that episode had been around before that day in 9th grade when my friends told me that they thought I’d changed and become full of myself after winning that special award at Middle School graduation. All I can really say to that at this point is, thank you retroactively, Twilight Sparkle. Maybe I grew up too soon to get that message, but hopefully the next generation of kids will hear it and take it to heart.

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MDNA: Madonna’s Back, but is her musical talent?

4 Apr

The album artwork for MDNA.

Many artists in the music industry are sometimes expected by the media and the public to continue producing material that re-defines their style of song and re-confirm his or her status as a top performer. Entertainers like Madonna have been doing this for years since she is widely revered for reinventing her music and image consistently with the release of each new album. With her latest effort titled MDNA, Madonna delivers a selection of great new tracks, but the overall album feels heavy with lackluster songs that scream to be re-produced with better lyrics and slightly more refined instrumentation.

The catalog opens up with a club frenzy song “Girls Gone Wild.” The energy in this track feels low and does not bear the same amount of effort the idolized artist is known to bring to each project. If you want to listen to something mindless and forgettable while sipping on an endless supply of margaritas, you can repeat the playback of this middle school song as much as you want.

The album immediately becomes darker with “Gang Bang,” a track that, from the title, appears to be about sex. However, she refrains from saying the charged word at all. What you get is a sound layered in mean beats and malevolent vocals of a Madonna who loves revenge. The repeating chorus, “Bang bang, shot you dead/ Shot my lover in the head,” signals her passion for fleshing out her tough cookie attitude and darker side. While it is a catchy song, the violent nature might make your skin crawl with discomfort.  Madonna likes to be fun, sexy, and in this case, daring. And if someone’s in her way, this song will remind you to get out of her way because she’ll shoot a bitch if she has to.

To bring us out of the dark hole we are dragged into, Madonna then lifts the dark curtain to reveal a more fun and light club banging song “Turn Up the Radio.” It will definitely brighten your mood and maybe even make you want to pump your fist in the air.

“Give Me All Your Luvin’” is definitely an homage to 80’s music, but sounds self-centered too quickly when the chorus of cheerleading girls chant “L-U-V Madonna/ Y-O-U you wanna.” Thankfully the remix of this song on the deluxe version featuring LMFAO’s “Party Rock” in the mix gives the music a clearer sound that feels crisp and more bearable.

A majority of the songs are poppy, begging to be transformed into gay anthems, but there is not much sincerity and heart in some of those tracks. They sadly do not compare to the high and fun energy past favorites such as “Vogue” provided.

Thankfully, there are some tracks that can stand on their own. “Masterpiece” is an R&B beat heavy song intertwined with the softer side of Madonna’s voice where she laments falling in love with something that is forbidden. The song was originally produced for W./E., a film produced by Madonna about the affair between Edward VIII, Prince of Wales and American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The entire tone is beautifully introduced when she first sings “If you were the Mona Lisa/ You’d be hanging in the Louvre/ Everyone would come to see you/ You’d be impossible to move.” By the end, you will feel the chilling and sober reminder of how painful it is to pull yourself away from continuing to fall in love with an unattainable individual or idea.

Another song that restores part of my faith in Madonna’s ability to make music is “Falling Free.” The agony in her voice makes you feel as if you are on a downward spiral with no chances of climbing out of it.

Madonna fans will eat up this album like an ice cream chocolate cake, but some may find the composition of this music too jarring or screechy in comparison with her earlier material. Every artist’s sound changes over time, but it becomes concerning when a new collection of songs lack any real reinvention.

Head on over to iTunes to preview and download songs from MDNA today.

Defining Arts and Entertainment

8 Mar

In the Oxford English dictionary, art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” which can produce work that can be appreciated for possessing emotional power or beauty. Alternatively, the arts is outlined as “the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.” For entertainment, the esteemed dictionary describes it as “the action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment.” If we turn to Wikipedia, we find that entertainment is considered “an action, event or activity that aims to entertain, amuse and interest a public.”

While art and entertainment carry their own independent definitions, they are subjects that share a lot in common and continue to blur together. When we try to picture what art is in our heads, we instantly conjure up images such as a painting, a sculpture, a play, poetry, dance, music, etc. Common images of entertainment that pop in our minds include television, movies, rap stars, and more. The former subjects, however, can be considered to contain both entertainment and artistic value. Sculptures, paintings, and other forms provide enlightenment and entertainment for our minds. Music as a highly regarded art form is also a major source of entertainment for the masses. Just count how many times a popular song has been downloaded on iTunes or the number of screaming fans at a Lady Gaga concert (who she deems appropriately “Little Monsters”). And most people can see how a play or musical contains element of artistic expression and entertainment.

While art and entertainment appear to share similar values, it is entertainment that gets the most attention in this country through a variety of media outlets. We tune in to our favorite TV shows, take pleasure in eating salt and butter infused pop corn while watching the latest film (good or bad) from Hollywood, discover and download songs that are burning up the charts, etc. Every week the entertainment industry works hard to deliver to us products and content for profit physically and digitally. And in return, we become influenced by this very content almost immediately.

At the same time, there is also a great quantity of art being produced. For example, there are new exhibitions and art galleries opening every week, but that scratches the surface of what is available for us to experience creatively and artistically. There are festivals, conferences, plays, dance performances, concerts, and an unlimited and sometimes unfiltered stream of art popping up all the time. Hopefully each arts-based event will make you think, inspire you, challenge you or demonstrate the different worlds surrounding you.

Participating in this realm as an artist or spectator does wonders for the soul and the mind. Making, producing, and performing art is what allows us examine and explore our humanity or a particular subject honestly. We might be called into acton to fight for a cause or end an injustice. Beauty and presentation may be the top two layers to a performance or event, but you have to look past those two obvious elements in art — there might be a great meaning, theme, message, etc. within it. Art is not just pretty. It’s honest, messy, and controversial.

There is also a formula that art can follow with too: Act + React + Talk = ART. Why does a formula like this matter so much? Think about it for now and come back later for a deeper discussion behind this.

—GM

Review: The 84th Annual Academy Awards

27 Feb
From Oscars.org

Meryl, Bret and Octavia at the Oscars. (Property of AMPAS.)

Bright lights, a clear as glass stage, giant sized movie screens, stunning visual effects, and a gorgeous red carpet with desirable dresses and handsome penguin suites. Yes, last night was Hollywood’s most coveted and glamourous night, the Oscars. Hosted by 9-time presenter Billy Crystal, the Academy heavily relied on the beauty and wonder of the old cinema as its backdrop in the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, CA. While it was wonderful to watch all the women delicately walk by in their designer gowns, the main ceremony succeeded in providing a keeping people at the edge of their seats of who would win what award.

The opening special sequence before the ceremony was an outrageous mashup of pivotal moments from the latest Oscar nominated films that centered around Crystal’s adventure of arriving at the ceremony. You could not help but laugh at him as he conversed with teen-idol Justin Beiber in a horse drawn carriage (poking fun at Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris), or his final sprint to the finish through a movie projector aided on by Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. 

Crystal continued on this momentum by delivering fantastic opening jokes and musical numbers to poke fun at the nine films nominated for Best Picture. You could not doubt his stamina due to his Broadway-esque style of singing and sharp timing. Thankfully, he is a what you can call a truly reliable entertainer for an awards show. But if would have helped if the sound engineers re-mixed the sound so the orchestra did not overpower his singing during his opening act—with any live broadcast though mistakes happen.

It was no surprise that Octavia Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help as Minnie, she was always considered the front-runner from the start. She made the audience laugh, though, when she thanked the Academy “for putting me with the hottest guy in the room.” But it was equally special that Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Beginners, as a closeted older gay man. The gracious actor took great care to thank the Academy for this honor, his co-stars for working on this film with him and his wife Eliane Taylor. It was also an eye-opening moment if you realized right then and there that, at age 82, Plummer is now the oldest living actor to receive an Oscar.

Property of AMPAS.

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifinakis. (Property of AMPAS.)

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifinakis almost stole Crystal’s thunder as presenters for Best Original Song with crashing symbols while walking out of the musical pit and onto the stage. With stone-cold comedian faces and musical instrument handling mishaps, you could hear the audience trying not to succumb to a state of laughter that would leave them in stitches.

The comedic duo then presented some great news: The song “Man or Muppet” from the The Muppets won for Best Original Song, and was presented to funny man Bret McKenzie. He noted that Kermit the Frog is “just a normal frog,” adding “And like many stars here, he’s a lot shorter in real life.”

I had this gut feeling when I saw the Iranian film A Separation, nominated for Best Foreign film, that it was going to win that highly prized Oscar. That hunch came amazingly true last night when it won, convincing me I need to watch for its cultural significance and current reflection on Iranian culture.

While the Oscars every year throw together a dance sequence from a performance troupe or choreographer, this year a piece was produced by Cirque du Soleil. With tremendous flexibility and bravery, the group executed a nearly flawless piece that took us inside the movies from the physical reel of film to the action projected on the screen. Though there was a moment when a pair of performers slightly missed a landing in a formation, it did not ruin the overall image that was being composed before the audience.

Throughout the proceedings, it felt like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was winning every award; the name of the film just kept getting called for one award after another. It was visually stunning film, so it is no wonder then that the Academy awarded it with accolades such Best Art Direction, Cinematography. Visual Effects, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing.

But we cannot forget the closely watched Best Actress and Actor award. It came as a personal shock to me that Meryl Streep won for her role in The Iron Lady’s British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. I saw her performance in the film and it was spot on, some of the finest acting I have experienced. She executed the role with perfect ease, so this must have been a difficult vote to cast because there were so may great women who were nominated as well (such as Viola Davis for The Help, and Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn). Streep kept it simple though by humbling accepting the award and acknowledging the work her fellow nominees delivered this year.

It was a sigh of relief that George Clooney did not get Best Actor for his role in The Decedents. While he is a great actor, he tends to exhibit characters that all borrow similar traits and mannerisms. It was clearly appropriate then for Jean Dujardin to win the award from his work in The Artist.

Two of the year’s most talked about films, The Artist and The Help, equally deserved to win Best Picture. But it was The Artist that won, the delightful silent-French film set in 1920’s old-Hollywood. This appeared to signal that Hollywood is in love with itself and would prefer to pass over films that allow us as an audience to reflect upon our country’s dark history. Yet, it demonstrates that a movie does not need to have talking actors to become an award-winning film. Maybe it gives films the opportunity to rely on other visual methods of storytelling. Either way, it was a shame that there could not be a tie between the two movies.

The Oscars Statuette.

It was disappointing to find out though too that this broadcast had the lowest ratings ever — only 31.8 million people tuned in to this event. The buzz and excitement of this years Oscars probably did not entice fans enough to watch the show. It may even give us pause to consider how this kind of show can continue to entertain us for years to come or if it is time to go off the air. An idea for next year’s theme at the Oscars: movie genres, but we may want to keep the gore and thrilling sequences to a minimal.

For a full list of this years winner, head on over to this website: http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/84/nominees.html

—GM

Who is the “Academy?”

26 Feb

Every year millions of people tune in on a Sunday night in February to watch the Academy Awards present “Oscars” or “Best in….” awards to actors, directors, producers, and other creative talent for delivering the highest achievement in cinema.

But not many are aware of what The Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences is, the organization that owns the Oscars and are responsible for the membership of the academy.

Since 1927, this originally humble group of 36 members has grown to about 5,000+ today. To become a member of this organization, you have to be invited by the academy’s Board of Governors. “A candidate must be sponsored by at least two members of the branch for which the person may qualify. Each proposed member must first receive the endorsement of the branch’s executive committee before his/her name is submitted to the Board.” (Oscars.org)

So, there are a lot of famous artists in the film industry that you might recognize who are a part of this academy, such as Jennifer Hudson, Michelle Williams, Wes Studi, director Christopher Nolan, musician Bono and many more. And that means that the judges of those prestigious golden statues are everyone’s peers, unlike critics in the Hollywood Foreign Press who present the Golden Globes. The Academy however does not list on its official website a full list of its members, only a handful of samples for each group of artists or categories.

How does a film get nominated? According to the film’s official website, a film must open within a January 1 – December 31 calendar year in Los Angles county, CA (unless the entry is a foreign film) and be at least 40 minutes in length (or the film is submitted as a short film). The studio that owns the film usually submits its film, cast and crew in for consideration of nomination in a certain category. After ballots are distributed and gathered for a tally of the votes, a private firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers in this case, secretly counts all the votes. Nominations are then announced in early January followed by the spectacle television broadcast in February.

While this is a just a basic outline of the many rules and procedures that run the Academy, it appears to be a tightly controlled system so the nominations and awards are appropriately handled.

But while watching NBC Nightly News recently, I came across a segment that examined who the members of the Academy were. They explained that the Los Angeles Times uncovered recently that the Academy is 93% white and 77% male with the median age at 62. It was also revealed that 98% of the screenwriters are white and 97% of cinematographers are men. And membership is for a lifetime. Does that mean that the Oscars for Best Picture, Actress, Actor, etc. are determined by an elite group in Hollywood? Some might question then how slowly change comes for the Oscars to become a diverse body of members.

But change is slowly coming. There are more internships, grants offered by the Academy to promote a range of diversity in film and actors like Alfre Woodward are trying to round up more people from different backgrounds in the film industry to encourage them to become sponsored by a member of the organization to become a member.

What we will always question though is how close the votes were for determining the winner of an award. For example, I still wonder to this day how many more votes did Brokeback Mountain needed to receive the award for Best Picture when it lost it to Crash. Though the votes may not always reflect the current diversity and landscape of the American people, at least it continues to intrigue us about the magic of Hollywood and provides us projects that entertain or inspire us or call us to action (thank a well made documentary or biographical film for that).

Watch the Oscars tonight on your local ABC channel at 7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST.

To learn more about the Academy, visit oscars.org — for more information about the 84th Academy Awards, go to oscar.com (an ABC channel website dedicated to this event).

A review of the 84th Annual Academy Awards will follow the next day.

—GM