After brief and rather scattershot theatrical run in late September and early October, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks is being released in a DVD/Blu-ray combo from Shout! Factory, and for streaming on Amazon Instant and elsewhere. Taking place directly after the events of Friendship Is Magic‘s fourth season finale “Twilight’s Kingdom” while also picking up the threads from the My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, it’s terrific on its own, and even more importantly, the Shout! Factory discs have an entertaining and informative commentary track featuring key members of the production team. Here are some of the highlights of that commentary!
Spoilers abound, of course.
As for what the movie’s about, I’ll quote from my Village Voice review:
In the mirror universe populated by the ponies’ human counterparts, three evil girls arrive at Canterlot High, spreading dark magic and discontent leading up to the school’s musical showcase. Lacking in appreciable magic themselves, the Mane Five [no Twilight in their school to make six — ed] (Ashleigh Ball, Andrea Libman, and Tabitha St. Germain) and reformed villain Sunset Shimmer (Rebecca Shoichet) summon Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong) to cross back from the pony realm of Equestria and save the biped world.
I’d wager I’m party of one on this issue, but My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks is my favorite American animated movie of 2014. Favorite 2D animated movie, that is; The Book of Life wins for me in the 3D category, while anime-wise, Patema Inverted is the tops. To put it in further perspective, Rainbow Rocks is my fourth favorite movie of the year so far, after God Help the Girl, Snowpiercer, and It Felt Like Love. (That ranking may get switched around when I finally see the new Cronenberg picture.)
Rainbow Rocks also restored my faith in the franchise, which I’d been worried had been running out of creative energy since the third season, and the uneven first half of the fourth season didn’t help.
I almost gave up after “Filli Vanilli” – a decent enough episode derailed by a surprisingly tasteless joke – but the very next episode “Twilight Time” put the show back on track for me, beginning one if its strongest runs of episodes ever, culminating in Rainbow Rocks.
For my money, it also rehabilitates Equestria Girls. The gimmick in that first movie kept getting in the way, and now that its work is done, stories can be told without it being too distracting that, hey, there’s DJ PON-3! And Photo Finish! And Derpy! Equestria Girls feels much more functional now, like, oh, okay, you are going somewhere with this.
The first movie would have been too soon for this kind of a story; you have to re-establish the Cutie Mark Crusaders with the library scene in the first movie, before you can make them eeeeeeevil in the second. And now that that’s out of the way…
1. It Bears Repeating: There’s a Professional Commentary Track on a My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic Product!
And a straightforward one at that, by people actually involved in the production of the show and movies: Michael Vogel, VP of Development at Hasbro Studios; Brian Leonard, Executive Director at Hasbro Studios; Meghan McCarthy, Screenwriter; Jayson Thiessen, Supervising Director; and Ishi Rudell, Co-Director. All the boys sound the same to me, so for the most part Ms. McCarthy is the only commentator I’ll be able to directly reference.
To the best of my knowledge, this is a first – I’m sure there are probably fan commentaries on various episodes available, but I’ll pass, thanks – and I hope it sets a trend going forward. As it is, I feel the show has been underserved on physical media; the full-season collections are overpriced considering their dearth of extras, but that’s probably because there’s more money in the theme-based collections. That they aren’t available on Blu-ray even though the show is produced in HD (and available as such digitally) is a shame as well. So, the fact that this and its predecessor have been released on Blu-ray is a pretty big deal, and even moreso that there’s a commentary track, finally. (I probably can’t overstate how much I love commentary tracks)
2) It’s Not As Simple as It May Appear.
The pre-credits sequence of Rainbow Rocks occurs chronologically during the climax of Equestria Girls, as our new villains the Sirens – Adagio Dazzle, Aria Blaze, and Sonata Dusk – witness it from afar, and gain power from the Equestrian magic used by Twilight Sparkle to defeat Sunset Shimmer. It reminds me of Richard Donner’s original plan for the first two Superman movies, in which the nuclear missile sent off into space at the end of the first film frees the Kryptonian villains from the Phantom Zone, as can be seen in the beginning of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
The producers liked the idea that the inciting incident at the end of the previous film, bringing the Elements of Harmony to this world, would have long-lasting effects that nobody could have predicted. According to Ms. McCarthy, when she wrote the ticking-clock element into the first film (Twilight only had a few days to retrieve her crown before the portal back to Equestria closed for another 30 moons), she didn’t know there was going to be a second film and that she’d have to eventually find a way to bring Twilight back. Believe it or not, this was not a franchise by design, though as far as I’m concerned, knowing that it sets up the events of Rainbow Rocks raises Equestria Girls‘ stock considerably.
They also weren’t sure, at the beginning, just whose movie it was going to be. It wasn’t until Ms. McCarthy’s second draft that she realized that former villain Sunset Shimmer was going to be a major character – she says she sent out that draft with the note that “Sunset Shimmer is huge!” – because she had someplace to go as a character. Sunset is penitent for what she did, but how does she fix that, exactly? For me, when I realized that not only were the events of the first film going to inform this one, and that a major theme of the movie was going to be about Sunset trying to find redemption, that was when it won me over. I loves me a good redemption arc.
3. They Tried to Make It Look Like an Actual Movie, and They Succeeded.
Friendship Is Magic is by no means uncinematic, but there was an attempt made to make this new movie more visually dynamic than just another episode. The fact that we don’t return to Equestria until about 20 minutes in helps make Rainbow Rocks its own entity, but the directors also tried to work in more subtleties than might be found on the show, playing with depth of field more, particularly during the first song performed by the heroes’ band, the Rainbooms. The commentators observe that animation director Kenneth Chu also put a lot of effort into making the instrument-playing as accurate as possible. It’s a little thing, but it adds up.
Another recurring use of depth of field is in the fact that unlike ponies, these characters have bodies whose degrees of articulation give the directors a whole new dimension to play with.
Have you ever heard of a show called Slugterra? Like Friendship Is Magic, it’s buried deep in the cable landscape, handled on video by Shout! Factory, and also had a feature-length film distributed to theaters by Screenvision this year. That film, Slugterra: Return of the Elementals, was nothing more than an hour-long episode of the series, to the extent that it retained the show’s regular opening credits and just used “Return of the Elementals” as an episode title. By contrast, Equestria Girls at least created an new title sequence using a remix of the theme song, and in Rainbow Rocks, the iconic My Little Pony melody is never used at all. Advantage: Pony.
In any event, spectacle is all fine and good – and Rainbow Rocks‘ opening credit sequence by layout artist Tony Cliff is pretty spectacular, setting the tone while slyly recapping the first film – but it’s also empty if the characters aren’t engaging. And no less attention was paid to character details, such as…
4) Sunset Shimmer’s Character Has to Grow, but Not All at Once.
Though she’s not a member of the Rainbooms, Sunset hangs out with them because nobody else will have her after the events of the first film – she even gets rebuffed by the Cutie Mark Crusaders, who know a thing or two about being excluded – and according to the commentary, as the band plays “Better than Ever,” the producers weren’t sure how engaged Sunset should be.
In the final cut, she keeps her cool at first, eventually getting down from her perch atop Rarity’s piano (not be confused with Rarity’s keytar) and snapping her fingers, tapping her feet, and eventually clapping her hands, but not much else, because her character’s still a bit too cool for more than that. An early bit of animation had her dancing and shaking her hips, and they were all, “Is that really Sunset Shimmer?” And the answer is no, that’s not who she is just yet. It’s a minor detail on screen, but it speaks volumes about who Sunset is at this point (and how strongly the producers feel about keeping faithful to the characters and their individual journeys). She’s no longer the bad girl, she’s deeply insecure now and she’s trying to atone for what she did wrong, but it’s difficult at best. And there’s a funny thing about villains…
5) The Sirens Aren’t Exactly Wrong.
In a scene which Ms. McCarthy describes as flipping around the “bringing everyone together” scene from the first film, our villains the Sirens tap into the inherent negativity of the Canterlot High students (and, more crucially, Principal Celestia and Vice Principal Luna) and convince them to turn what was going to be friendly musical showcase into a battle of the bands. This is achieved through their dark Equestrian magic, which manifests through them signing a song reasonably titled “Let’s Have a Battle (of the Bands)” in the cafeteria during lunch. Everyone is affected except for the Rainbooms and Sunset Shimmer, who are still protected from Twilight’s lingering Equestrian magic (which also causes them to awesomely sprout ears and hair-tails while playing music). And some, like Trixie, don’t need any help to be ultra-competitive – or Rainbow Dash, as we’ll see later. They also never comment on the green smoke that accompanies the Sirens siphoning negative energy, probably because it was conceived of after the dialog was recorded. This is my own supposition, and not in the commentary.
One of the commentators relates that a friend who doesn’t watch Friendship Is Magic saw the sequence at Comic-Con, and was impressed by the fact that most of what the Sirens are saying at the beginning isn’t wrong, exactly. You should want to stand out and shine bright; they almost have a point, but then you realize, “I feel weird about this!” There’s nothing empirically wrong with what they’re saying, but there’s something wrong about it all the same, and the best villains usually have a pretty compelling reason which gets turned on its head and used for evil.
Moral ambiguity, y’all! It’s one of the reasons I’m such a fan of the show.
6) The Scene Around the Statue.
You gotta dump exposition somewhere, and as the Rainbooms and Sunset discuss how to deal with Sirens, the directors made a conscious effort to make it interesting and dynamic as possible, particularly as the camera dollies past Sunset to show Fluttershy in the background, or as the camera follow the ladybug on Fluttershy’s finger as it flies off. (I know nothing about the lifespans of ladybugs, but I choose to believe it’s the same ladybug that Twilight saw when she first opened her eyes in this universe in the first film.)
This sequence also features one of my favorite recurring jokes in the film, in which everyone keeps inadvertently reminding Sunset that she used to be evil. Ya wanna know what’s difficult to escape from? Your past, that’s what.
This detail isn’t mentioned in the commentary at all and I’m surely making connections where none exist, but I consider the camera move from Sunset to looking down the side of the statue to be an homage to a similar dolly in Taxi Driver, one which Martin Scorsese has called the most important shot in the film. It occurs at about a minute into the clip, but those first sixty seconds are necessary for emotional context, if you’re into that sort of thing.
7) A Message to Equestria.
Sunset is able to get a message to Twilight via a book which, when she writes in it here, appears in a certain book back in Equestria. One of the directors (again, not sure who) says he got the idea of
“quantum-entangled books” from a fantasy series he read in high school. He doesn’t specify the series, though; anyone have any idea what it might be?
As Sunset overcomes her shame and guilt and we follow her message between universes, we get our first shot of Ponyville in a movie – the Equestria scenes were entirely in the Crystal Empire in the first film – accompanied by a big orchestral swell by William Kevin Anderson. That musical cue just gets me everytime, and it also sets Rainbow Rocks apart from Friendship Is Magic, since establishing shots of Ponyville are never so majestic. The commentators say that Anderson’s philosophy was, “We’re making a movie, so let’s make it sound like a movie.” Oh yeah. Mad props also go to Daniel Ingram’s terrific pop songs, many of which were co-written with Ms. McCarthy.
8) The Song of the Sirens.
Done in a storybook style not seen since the pilot episode – and it appears to be the same book from which Twilight read about Nightmare Moon from that episode, so it’s fitting – the backstory of Sirens, as dragons in Equestria that were banished to the other world by Twilight’s hero Starswirl the Bearded, was illustrated by Rebecca Dart. I’ve been a fan of her work for several years, since she’s the life partner and frequent collaborator of Robin Bougie, creator of one of my favorite movie ‘zines, Cinema Sewer. Ms. Dart also regularly appears in his autobiographical comics, such as this one from the ninth issue, which perfectly sums up my own feelings about writing about movies for a living.
9) How the Rainbooms Got their Twilight Back.
Getting a message to Equestria is one thing, but returning to the biped world before the portal officially reopens is quite another. They went through a lot of different ways, before realizing that hey, Twilight’s smart enough to figure it out – with a little nudge in the right direction from Pinkie Pie – by using science to harness the magic in the books. And in Equestria, magic is science. They also point out that it’s important for Twilight’s story in the movie going forward, because she’s a pony who can solve any problem. But as a biped? That’s a different story.
Co-director Ishi Rudell (it’s so helpful when they mention each other’s names!) was also determined to make sure all the pieces fit, that there was a logic to how the Confabulous Dimension-Hopping Fabtraption of Princess Twilight Sparkle worked.
On a more emotional level, they also made sure to (in their words) “milk” the scene in which Twilight is reluctant to accept Sunset’s offer of assistance to get off the ground, to show that they really aren’t quite sure of each other yet, especially Twilight.
After all, she’s been gone for a least an entire television season. In the commentary, Ms. McCarthy arbitrarily decides that Twilight’s been gone for six moons, which is as good a number as any. (Wait, if it’s been that long, how come the Sirens are only now descending upon Canterlot High?) (Repeat to yourself: it’s just a show…)
10) Friendship Is Magic! …Y’know, or Not.
The commentators are rightfully proud of the scene in which they attempt to defeat the Sirens with Equestrian magic by holding hands and proclaiming the show’s subtitle. And it does…nothing whatsoever. They enjoyed the opportunity to make fun of themselves, and have it be organic to the story. Turns out “Let’s just hold hands and beat the bad guy!” is not a particularly effective plan, and they’ll have to start from scratch.
And while I prefer the term “letting a scene breathe” to “milking it,” they hilariously milk the hell out of the non-aftermath of their failed spell, as the entire student body looks on in mild disbelief – including the Cutie Mark Crusaders, well on their way to the dark side judging from their proximity to the Sirens. Sweetie Belle and Applebloom are appropriately mortified to see their old sisters embarrassing themselves in a way that’s usually the propensity of the Crusaders themselves, and Scootaloo appears to be not having it at all.
As one of the commentators commentates elsewhere, this movie is just full of people who are not having it at different times; my favorite instance is Luna and Celestia not having it when Snips and Snails drop the microphones in shriek of feedback after an ill-considered hip-hop performance.
Anyway, according to the commentary, this failed showdown between the Rainbooms and the Sirens also solved an important early script issue in that it revealed to the Sirens that there’s something wrong with these girls, that the Rainbooms plus Twilight and Sunset aren’t under their spell. Of course, it goes without saying that the Sirens (or the Crusaders, for that matter) won’t be invited to…
11) The Slumber Party, or Rainbow Cheats.
After Sunset realizes that they need to fight music with music, and that Twilight needs to write a musical counterspell for the Rainbows to defeat the Sirens – a song, don’tchaknow – Pinkie Pie declares a slumber party at her house so Twilight doesn’t have to sleep in the school library like last time.
Now, I originally reviewed My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks for the Village Voice from an online screener, but I also wanted to see it in the theater (especially since I’m fortunate enough to live in a city in which it was playing), so I attended the 10pm screening on opening night. In spite of all conventional wisdom about the show’s fanbase, it was mostly families. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen so many kids clearly out past their bedtime before – a wide mix of ages, genders, and ethnicities – and I was joined by a friend who knows nothing about My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic beyond my being a big fan, but the fact that I think so highly of it was enough for him to take a chance.
He enjoyed the movie (and I’m happy to report that we’re just about done watching the first season), and he found one scene particularly resonant: at the slumber, Rainbow Dash and Applejack are playing a video game which the commentators refer to as an easter egg: the biped equivalent of the Power Ponies. In order to keep Applejack from winning, Rainbow Dash slams on the console to stop the game, then denies Applejack’s contention that she was about beat Rainbow. The eerie part is, a similar thing once happened to my moviegoing companion and an ex-girlfriend, her stopping the game before he could win. What’s more, the woman who pulled this tres-Rainbow Dash move also had rainbow-colored streaks in her hair.
This scene is also significant to me because, in any universe, Rainbow Dash is a total nozzle. What’s more, she never gets properly taken to task for this latest dick move in a long history of dick moves, nor is she taught any valuable lessons about the magic of friendship as a result.
I feel like most people who haven’t actually watched the show believe that it’s so relentlessly happy and cheerful, and so narrowly focused on the positive benefits of friendship and conveying very nice messages about sharing, that it must have all the tension and conflict of the Itchy and Scratchy episode “Porch Pals.”
Which is just not the way it is, and I don’t believe the show would be as successful as it is if that were the case. In any event, not being much of a gamer, I’m all about Rarity and Team Duckface.
12) In the Night Kitchen.
It’s funny how often in commentaries and behind-the-scenes stuff you hear that the most important scenes in a movie or show in terms of character development were done almost as an afterthought, or at least very late in the process. So it goes with this scene between Twilight and Sunset late at night in Pinkie Pie’s kitchen, a beautifully shot and acted sequence that’s possibly my favorite scene in the entire Pony franchise.
Throughout the slumber party and for much of the rest of the movie, Twilight is attempting to write the counterspell and having very little luck at it. Unable to sleep even, she sneaks into the kitchen and continues writing. She’s joined by Sunset, who is looking for a late-night snack but finds only a fridge full of whipped cream. (Did I mention that it’s Pinkie Pie’s kitchen?)
It also continues one of my favorite details about the movie: when Twilight is deep in thought and/or stressed out as a biped, she holds her still-unfamiliar hands like hooves, and prefers to write with the pen in her mouth when not being watched.
A relatively late addition to the script, this scene went through a lot of revisions, because it was just so important thematically the rest of the movie, particularly because even though they realized that Sunset’s arc is a big part of the movie (the biggest, I’d argue), Twilight is still important as well, and they had to find the proper balance between the two. They slowly reveal their vulnerabilities to each other: the pressure on Twilight to be good and save the day – she’s a princess in Equestria, so she must have all the answers, right? – and the pressure on Sunset to not be bad, or, more to the point, to not ruin the day. They’re both carrying enormous emotional burdens, terrified of letting their friends, and by extension the world, down.
And it ends with an emotional kick in the teeth right up there with Pinkie Pie’s disillusionment in “Party of One,” or the entire Mane Six’s disillusionment in “The Best Night Ever,” as the more-neurotic-than-ever Twilight can’t bring herself to ask for Sunset’s help, even though she desperately needs it. The whole scene, and particularly that moment, is worth the price of admission.
13) The Skirmish Commences.
In spite of a horrible performance of “Shake Your Tail” that gets sabotaged by Photo Finish as well as Snips and Snails – and a scene in which the Sirens circle Sunset and torment her, as the commentators point out, by telling her things that mash her anxiety buttons while also being mostly true – the Rainbooms survive to continue to compete. Their goal is to win the Battle so they can play the counterspell that Twilight will totally have ready to go (she definitely won’t let them down, right?), and free the student body from the grip of the Sirens.
This is all done in a brilliantly edited montage to the Sirens’ “Under Your Spell,” and as the commentators explain, this is how you depict a bunch of bands being eliminated without necessarily having to write a bunch of different songs. We also see Sunset continuing to be sidelined, and Twilight continuing to be unable to write the counterspell.
It would probably be my favorite sequence in the movie if not for Twilight and Sunset’s nighttime talk, and it also contains one of KrOB’s favorite aspects of the movie: people being blown back by wicked power chords. Note that Rainbow Dash doesn’t need to be mesmerized by the Sirens to happily send poor Octavia into orbit.
Also, after a few shots of them in “Shake Your Tail,” we have the evil Cutie Mark Crusaders in full “Show Stoppers” finery!
I’ve talked to some people who don’t like the Crusaders, and all I can do is paraphrase something that Quentin Tarantino allegedly once said about Brian Trenchard-Smith: If you aren’t down with the CMC, get the frak outta here.
They also make an appearance in song-closing greenscape of bickering Canterlot High Students; where the blow-them-into-the-sky battles made a point of only pitting girls against girls (the Rainbooms vs. Octavia, or Bulk Biceps vs. Snips and Snails) because it sorta technically qualifies as violence, in this case boys and girls get to scream at each other, including Flash Sentry vs. Trixie, and Derpy vs. Bulk Biceps.
14) A Low Sunset.
Part of the Rainbooms’ strategy is not reveal their ears-and-tails magic until the final showdown, but being who she is, Rainbow can’t help but show off during a performance of “Awesome as I Wanna Be” (guess who wrote it?), and as her ears and tails start to appear, Sunset tackles Rainbow, causing the whole band to collapse. Naturally, they don’t believe that she was trying to help – or, more to the point, they think that that if she was trying to help she went about it in the worst way possible. (Rarity points out the other ways Trixie could have helped – by cutting Rainbow’s amp, or just letting the band deal with the situation – but from our vantage point, Sunset did the only thing she could.) Nor does it help Sunset’s case when she responds to Trixie’s taunts about knocking out in Rainbow Dash in a fit of jealous rage with what sure sounds like a fit of jealous rage, Rebecca Shoichet’s voice breaking just right.
(Trixie fans: in case you haven’t figured it out, there’s a whole lotta Trixie in this movie.) The commentators say that Ms. Shoichet (who also does Twilight’s singing voice) really enjoyed playing Sunset as the “good” character, and that it’s a difficult dynamic to pull off, because you’re sruggling to be good but you’re still not really sure who you are. None of us can relate to that, can we?
Sunset’s nadir is a good place to leave off, particularly Twilight has yet to reach rock-bottom. I’ve only scratched the surface of the commentarial goodness, and you can check it out for yourself. Be sure to watch to the very end of the credits, and not just because the closer “Shine Like Rainbows” is one of the best original movie songs of the year – and if you expand the image below, please note that Angel is just not having it at all. But then again, he never does.
Previously by Sherilyn Connelly: