Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review of My Little Pony Equestia Girls: Rainbow Rocks

Sometimes, I have a hard time deciding how to start documents.  Sometimes, there are just too many things that seem like a good hook to choose just one.  This seems like one of those times when so many things could set the tone of a review that it's best just to be blunt to start: Rainbow Rocks isn't very good at all.  Speaking as someone who thought the first Equestria Girls was fun enough to forgive it partially as a totally pointless extended toy commercial, I can say this sequel actually disappointed even those low expectations.

The first problem with this film is the one many people expect it to be: Rainbow Rocks really doesn't.  I once had a VHS where Barney played a song teaching manners that rocked harder than this.  Musicals often lean hard on the leg of being musicals for their appeal; this being no exception, and that means when the music is bad, the musical tends to be, too.  While this movie's score isn't painful at all, in a big way, that's the problem.  Writers of media intended for kids (girls especially; it's worth noting) frequently don't seem to understand, even as they put on the airs of rock and roll to be cool, that this genre is supposed to be offputting to some extent.  It's supposed to have "blue" notes; that is, ones that don't fall into the standard major scales a song is based on, it's supposed to have a heavy bass and drum part, and its lyrics are supposed to range from somewhat to extremely unwholesome.  Obviously, this is a generalization, and not all three of those are always needed, but the songs in this film are so frequently, mind-numbingly devoid of all three that I felt like washing my ears out with Limp Bizkit and The Millionaires. 

Now, Daniel Ingram is a good songwriter, and I don't feel good pinning all of this on him, but this is a case wherein his hand was probably tied.  My Little Pony does okay musically when it's just trying for the Disney fairy tale vibe, but Rainbow Rocks has forced the brand into alien territory it wasn't ready to inhabit, and with the exception of one punk song by Rainbow Dash (which tellingly, the judges don't seem to like, and the band isn't allowed to finish), it doesn't even seem like they were trying and tripping over themselves; it's just white noise of the sort you'd hear in a supermarket.  It's bad enough that this movie is almost empty of the supposed rock its title alludes to, but what's even worse is that there's hardly any diversity of other musical styles.  The exceptions are the aforementioned punk song, other songs you only hear snippets of and a villain song that is at first somewhat interesting, but loses its luster after several more villain songs that sound very similar.  There's a musical duel between the villains and the heroes in the finale, which does provide for some impressive syncopation, but it also made me wonder if I was rooting for the wrong side.

That's as good a time as any to segue into the storyline of this film, which, while better than the music, is entirely too predictable; especially for fans of the series.  The antagonist of the first film, Sunset Shimmer, is trying to turn over a new leaf, gaining the sympathy of the other Equestria Girls--minus Twilight Sparkle--but not necessarily their respect, and it gets worse for her from there.  This makes for quite a problem when new villains from Equestria show up, and decide to brainwash the majority of the school to do some vague task they intend to command.  In one of the most pretentious bits of peddling a theme in this series' history, and reminiscent of the canonization of bad rock music in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Coming Out of Their Shells, the heroines find that somehow, playing music together in their band, the Rainbooms activates their magical powers to resist evil and generally shine and sparkle, which in last film required the presence of Twilight Sparkle; their "Keeper of the Heart", so to speak.  In other words, this film is about horses that became humans, who in turn form a band that allows them to turn into magical-girls that look more like horses.
The most absurd thing is it might still make more sense than that series where ponies could play instruments while still completely in fingerless pony form.  
The girls realize this gives them the ability to combat the new villains, whom they, unlike others, actually trust Sunset Shimmer about, but they need more expertise, so they contact Twilight Sparkle over in the actual Equestria (This series has yet to explain why it's called "Equestria Girls" despite the fact that the human versions of the characters don't live in Equestria), and she deduces that the three villains attacking the school are sirens from her world, who roughly tow the mythological line about sirens being creatures who bend others to their will by singing; except I don't remember sirens being horses.  Twilight rigs up a machine with a cringe-worthily unfunny technobabble joke, and warps on over to the human world.  Here, the three sirens have realized that the heroines are immune to their charms, so they convince the principal to hold a Battle of the Bands, wherein they enter their own band, the Dazzlings, and intend to defeat the Rainbooms and also ruin their friendship.

The villain team in this movie is actually mildly entertaining.  Their designs, somewhere between the fashion senses of Jem and the Holograms and The Misfits, are awash in detail and almost seem like a parody of girl toy aesthetics, but what probably makes it work is actually that they were designed specifically for the human world of EG, as opposed to being adapted questionably from characters never originally intended to be humanoids.  Moreover, their alliance is shaky and humorous at times, and what's even better is that for once, there's an example about the power of friendship (or here, lack thereof) that actually translates into a real-world lesson about teamwork...or could have, if the writers made any use of that distinction in the finale.  The most notable thing about the villains, though, is the unintentionally(?) humorous way their evil manifests itself.  As people fall under their spell and start acting jerky, they secrete green vapors, which the sirens inhale.  Maybe this is just the perspective of an adult male viewer more familiar with cartoon tropes than the young demographic, but given that the animators are also in that boat, and they could have chosen any way to represent this evil magic, it's simply bizarre that they chose that.  If it isn't clear what I'm talking about yet, they can call themselves The Dazzlings all they want, but I can't stop thinking of them as "The Fart-Sniffers".
Seriously; have green vapors ever represented anything else in cartoons?!

The Fart-Sniffers mobilize the student body against the Mane 6+1, which mostly takes the form of multiple students pursuing their own musical ambitions in some thin fanservice along the lines of "Hey look; it's that character, and they're singing" but occasionally they sabotage the Rainbooms' own attempts.  In a downright bizarre blooper, Rarity, who is the pianist of the group, gets her keytar stolen during a song, yet the synth track keeps playing.  The conspiracy gets to them and there's a predictable argument, and just as predictably, it falls on Sunset Shimmer to save them, thus completing her redemption.

From there, it's just a matter of The Rainbooms going off to defeat The Fart-Sniffers, in the umpteenth variation we've seen on the literal friendship is magic tripe we've had to put up with for four seasons.  I pull no punches on this subject; My Little Pony is, and has been since its inception decades ago, terribly equipped to tell compelling stories of good vs evil, because of the stigma against showing any real violence or combat-strategizing; such as one would find in a show for boys of the same age.  Instead, battles take the form of good feelings and wholesome sentiments manifesting as magical lasers; always summoned and always victorious in roughly the same way.  The moment a villain shows up, there is never any suspense as to what will happen at the end.  Beyond that it just doesn't appeal to adult male fantasy-adventure sensibilities, it truly doesn't teach a real lesson about real-world friendship and teamwork to its target demographic of young girls.  Indeed, this season ended with a downright disgusting climax where this "right makes might" guff was used to justify negotiating with terrorists.  There is a serious discussion to be had here about sexist mental-conditioning, but for another post.

Ultimately, Rainbow Rocks just doesn't work on almost any level.  The music is boring and even insulting to hear in a film about rock music, the plot is predictable, and it lacks the "stranger in a strange human body in a strange land" running joke that made the first film watchable.  Completionists may want to give it a watch, but it's possible to ignore this one completely and still call yourself a fan.  To play us out, here's RainbowCrash88, the artist who truly rocked the rainbow:
And whose fangame you tried to kill, Hasbro.  Screw you.