Various and Sundry Cartoon Thoughts

Most of my viewing habits lately have been directed towards cartoons. Maybe it’s because I find the rest of the entertainment world increasingly hostile, or just because I enjoy the medium, but in any case I’ve been watching a lot of animated shows lately.

Stories, I find, are like relationships: made up of thousands of individual moments adding up to an overall tone that is either positive or negative. Either you like the person and feel better for having known them, or you dislike them and would prefer to having nothing to do with them. Then again, there are the ones who simply pass you by without leaving much of an impression. So, of the cartoons of recent years that I’ve watched, here are some general thoughts:

Avatar the Last Airbender is pretty much top of the heap: less a great show than a great fantasy-adventure that happens to have an animated show for its medium. Rich, beautiful, mostly positive (some lame feminist agitprop that really doesn’t fit the setting is probably the worst of it), filled with great characters and a wonderful story almost perfectly told.

My Little PonyFriendship is Magic, of course, I love. It’s certainly an acquired taste that not everyone will like, but man it hit a note with me with its timeless setting and storytelling, complex and charming characters, and especially its strong moral emphasis. I love moralism and ethical philosophy, and this show is not only all about that, but actually seems to know what its talking about. Great humor and some beautifully creative animation add to the charm.

Phineas and Ferb is another one that really speaks to me. In a world full of despair, resentment, and pessimism, the cheery good-will and hope that forms the core of this show is a breath of fresh air. It’s all about nice people doing nice things and enjoying life, but manages to do it in a smart, hilarious, and deceptively thoughtful way so that it doesn’t come across as the least sappy or contrived. I think Mr. Disney would have loved it; it’s espouses exactly the kind of hopeful can-do optimism that he did.

Gravity Falls I have mixed feelings about. Its really well written (for the most part), and its high moments are fantastic. I laughed hard and even choked up a few times. There’s a lot of creativity, and I enjoyed the fact that the show was willing to get really dark and scary at times. At the same time, though, there’s a mean-spirited, cynical side to it that I did not like, and when it’s bad, it can be really stupid. Plus it’s kinda ugly and there are some moral issues to it that would definitely prevent my showing this to my kids. I’ll have to delve deeper into it later.

Milo Murphy’s Law is the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb, by the same crew, so you know this is gonna be good. Like its predecessor, it boasts great characters and a refreshingly positive attitude, while being even crazier and more off-the-wall, with things like time-traveling secret agents, pistachio monsters, a teacher who may or may not be a vampire, and so on. It’s more serialized than its predecessor, with more of an overarching storyline, and though so far it’s not as good as Phineas and Ferb, it’s pretty close.

-The Ducktales reboot is too young to really say for sure, but so far the signs are very positive. I didn’t really watch the original, but the rebooted series is a ton of fun, and I love that Scrooge is allowed to be an actually heroic capitalist, and even to espouse solid principles about hard-work and self-reliance. The characters are all a lot of fun, there’s some intriguing story developments in the works, and I’m honestly eager to see where they go with this. Plus it has Kate Micucci as Webby, who also voices Milo’s sister Sara in Milo Murphy’s Law, and I’m kind of in love with her voice, which is the most adorably charming croak since Jean Arthur. It also has Donald Duck as a main character: what more needs to be said? It’s Donald Duck! You’d have to work hard to make him not funny.

Danny Phantom, you know what I think of that. A decent show that could have been fantastic if they had put a little more effort and imagination into it.

Sonic Boom is not very good, but it’s kind of charming for that very reason: less like they were really trying with it than they were just having fun playing with these characters. It’s pretty funny and just kind of relaxing to put on and enjoy. I can’t say it’s a good show, but it’s entertaining and pretty harmless.

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Season 7 In Revue

So, Season Seven of My Little Pony is officially over, leaving us to wait until spring for Season Eight…while enjoying a series of Equestria Girls shorts on YouTube! More Equestria Girl stuff the better.

On the whole, it was a good one; the writing’s as strong as ever and the show doesn’t display many signs of slowing down. Several episodes I thought ranked as among the show’s best, including an amazing run of Royal Problem, Discordant Harmony, and The Perfect Pear in the space of four episodes (the fourth, Not Asking for Trouble, was pretty good as well). Perfect Pear in particular is clearly in the top five of all time. Of course, the story wasn’t all rosy: some of the episodes, especially in the first half of the season, were pretty uneven, and one of them, Daring Done was, I thought, one of the weakest of the whole series.

Now, how did my wish list shake out?

7. Villain Team Up

Nope, not this time. I’m hopeful it’ll happen at some point down the road, though.

6. Button Mash

No, but I didn’t really expect it to happen anyway.

5. The Return of Diamond Tiara

Well…she had a prominent cameo in one episode, where she got to show a little personality, but that’s it.

4. Gabby and Gilda Episode

Nope. Neither appeared

3. Spotlight One of Pinkie’s Other Sisters

Like #5, they got a non-speaking cameo, but that’s it.

2. Scootaloo’s Parents

Nothing direct, but we did get a brief allusion to her home life, where she commented that she doesn’t have anyone offering her support or encouragement. The more hints they give about her parents, the more I get the feeling the subject would be too painful for this show to deal with.

Honorable mentions:

-Pet-Centric Episode: Nothing doing

-Ember Comes to Ponyville: Yes! And it was every bit as much fun as you’d think

-Owlowicious and Spike Episode: Nope. I don’t think Owlowicious even appeared, except in photo form.

-Princess Celestia Fighting and Not Losing: Yes! Granted it was in a dream sequence, but even so, her confrontation with her own evil self, Daybreaker, as well as Nightmare Moon in Starlight’s dream was one of the season highlights and let us see just how powerful she really is.

-Rainbow Dash solo: Nope…though she did get a major part in a number in the movie, which was pretty good.

1.Sunset Shimmer Comes to Equestria

Yes! Though it was unfortunately brief, and she only got to hang out with Starlight. Still, we got to see Sunset being a pony again for a while and Starlight visiting the human world, and though we didn’t get to spend as much time on either as I would have liked, they were just as much fun as I expected.

Here’s looking forward to Season Eight!

Thoughts on ‘My Little Pony: the Movie’

Just got back from seeing My Little Pony: The Movie (yes, opening day. I am not ashamed). And some thoughts:

-Overall, I’m giving it a ‘good-not-great’ rating: a solid 3-3.5/5. I enjoyed it, it’s still the same great characters, voices, writers, and world that I’ve grown to love. The animation is really good, I laughed a lot, and there were some surprisingly heavy moments, like a heated exchange between Twilight and Pinkie Pie that genuinely felt like a shot to the gut. The emotional power that the show is capable of may not be at its fullest, but it’s still there.

-That said, one of the biggest problems I had was that the show’s fantastic supporting cast is almost entirely sidelined. It’s pretty much just the Mane Six and Spike. Celestia, Luna, and Cadence appear, but they get taken out of the story pretty early. Even Starlight, who’s pretty much a main cast member now, doesn’t even get a single line of dialogue. I found that especially annoying since one, I really like Starlight, and two, I think they could have done some really cool things with her here; like have her and Trixie leading a resistance movement back home while Twilight and the others went to get the macguffin; have her join in the final battle, and so on.

-Meanwhile, another major supporting character, Discord, is absent for a much more understandable reason; that he’d pretty much break the plot. Still, I think they should have bit the bullet and confronted the issue head-on by having him present, but be taken out straight away (it wouldn’t have been much of a stretch; he has a history of underestimating his opponents and getting sucker-punched). Because as it is, I kept thinking “Well, you know, there’s Discord. Rips-the-fabric-of-reality-at-will, totally-in-love-with-Fluttershy-do-anything-for-her Discord. Maybe get in touch with him?” I think they were aiming to make the film accessible to non-fans by minimizing the amount of back-knowledge needed, but still, I think the balance could have been better.

-Surprisingly, but appropriately enough, the supporting cast member with the most important role after the princesses is…Derpy.

-Most importantly, the characters they do have are all recognizably themselves, and they all get pretty good-sized roles. Fluttershy’s probably in it the least, but she’s still present and contributes. I like how they don’t stretch things either; one of the Mane Six is primarily responsible for recruiting each new friend they meet, but they limit it to three or four rather than trying to force a ‘one apiece’ ratio. Moreover, their recruitments (especially Rarity’s) all make sense given the characters and situation.

-I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Twilight’s role here. Without giving it away, it kind of feels like she’s taken a step back character wise. But on the other, she is under enormous pressure, and it’s perfectly in character for her to overreact under stress, especially when she feels the whole thing is her responsibility. Basically, we get to see her at her worst here, but in a way that fits with everything she’s going through. So, on the whole, I think it works. Likewise, it’s completely in character for Pinkie Pie or Rainbow Dash to get caught up in the moment and do something foolish.

-I’m also glad that the film stayed true to the themes of the show; where the day is saved, not by an epic battle, but because Twilight chooses to show mercy to her enemy. And because all throughout their journey they’d taken the time to offer kindness and help to those around them.

-On the whole, the film feels more like a side-story than a culmination: sort of a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if the Mane Six went on an epic adventure?’ And, yeah it is, but it doesn’t really feel like a continuation of the story of the show. More like the MLP cast crossed paths with a different story entirely. So, not bad; a lot of good stuff, but could have been better.

 

Ponies and Introverts

Being an introvert mostly involves having people force you into uncomfortable situations and then blame you for not enjoying them. Our society doesn’t approve of those who prefer solitude or working alone: we want team players! Socially-well-adjusted youngsters! Collaboration! Synergy! Whatever other terms for ‘forcing people to act according to plan’ you care to name.

Reason number I-lost-count to love My Little Pony: it not only avoids this approach, but directly criticizes it. Yes, the show literally called ‘Friendship is Magic’ teaches it’s okay to enjoy solitude and unsocial pursuits, and that the more outgoing need to understand and accept that.

True, in the first episode Twilight is forced out of her comfort zone and becomes more sociable. But she doesn’t stop being an introvert. She still likes spending time alone reading or organizing her library (she does that a lot), and she’s not portrayed as being at all wrong for doing this. The show distinguishes between ‘enjoys spending time alone’ and ‘reclusive shut-in,’ with the latter being portrayed as an unhealthy exaggeration of the former. The point isn’t that spending time alone is bad, but that there needs to be a healthy balance between solitude and socializing, and that this balance will look different for different types of people.

It’s not just Twilight either: Fluttershy and Rarity are played as more introverted characters as well. The show even makes the point that Fluttershy choosing to opt out of some group activities and just stay home alone is perfectly okay if she doesn’t enjoy those activities. Likewise, when Rarity sometimes becomes too focused on her work to be polite it’s presented as a forgivable lapse rather than a fundamental problem in her personality. That she sometimes has to seclude herself to get her work done, that she draws energy from solitary creative effort, and that she has precise, high-class tastes that the others don’t really share are all portrayed as being a good thing: just part of her unique personality, to be accepted and appreciated rather than resented as ‘unsocial.’

Meanwhile, super-extrovert Pinkie has a couple episodes where she learns that some ponies simply don’t enjoy the kind of exuberant fun and socializing that she loves so much. Pinkie doesn’t mean any harm, of course, but it’s shown that she can be annoying to people who either don’t know her or who don’t share her taste in fun. In such cases, the lesson isn’t that they need to lighten up and be more outgoing, but that Pinkie needs to accept them as they are and befriend them based on their personality rather than hers.

Then there’s Maud. Oh, Lord, I love Maud! Maud is Pinkie’s older sister, who is pretty much her complete opposite. She’s extremely reserved, speaks in terse, laconic sentences, almost never shows emotion, and is completely and utterly wrapped up in the study of rocks. She’s so odd and so socially awkward that the others at first don’t know what to make of her, until they discover that Maud’s bland exterior hides very deep feelings, particularly when it comes to her little sister.

Pinkie_Pie_throwing_confetti_and_streamers_S4E18

The Introvert and the Extrovert

In other words, Maud is a non-specific, but very sympathetic portrait of someone with Aspergers, or some related condition. She’s not presented as being ‘broken’ or tragic; just as another person with her own unique personality. She’s difficult to get to know and not good with people, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with her.

One episode reveals that, much as she enjoys spending time alone with her rocks, she actually is lonely for a friend. She notes that “it’s not hard to find somepony I like. It’s finding somepony who gets me.” That’s a sentiment I can definitely relate to, and I love that this show is mature and thoughtful enough to understand it. When Maud does make a friend, it’s with fellow introvert Starlight, and they bond over quiet, thoughtful activities like kite flying and geology.

The overall message is that there are some people who are very outgoing, expressive, and sociable, and some people who aren’t, and that’s just how the world works. Both types have their strengths and weaknesses, and both need to be allowed to be themselves.

I wish more shows, and more people, understood that.