One thing that always struck me about many of the great fantasy franchises is how they started off as lowly underdogs. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and Robert E Howard's Conan the Barbarian had their origins in the pulp magazines in the 1920s and 30s, and floundered there in obscurity for decades. Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings suffered a similar fate by being lost in the small press, cherished only by a small population of enthusiasts and collectors, for nearly as long. Harry Potter? Written by some out of work mother of two and consigned to the children's books section. Who could possibly take any of them seriously?
And now we may be witnessing another great fantasy franchise emerge, one with an even huger underdog disadvantage than any of the others. Yes, I'm talking about the unlikely but undeniable cult phenomenon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
Why its such an underdog goes even beyond its status as a G-rated animated show. The franchise's earlier incarnations really were the trite, sugary pap that many associate with girl-centric cartoons. They were shows that only five year old girls, and practically no one else, could really enjoy. Even in the dubious pantheon of saturday morning cartoons, My Little Pony was considered the bottom of the barrel.
But master animator Lauren Faust, who had helmed Power Puff Girls and created Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends, expressed an interest in reviving the show. Not because she was impressed with the cartoons that had come before, but because she had played with the toys as a kid and had always had a fondness for the characters. Hasbro, owner of the franchise, decided to give her a shot, and even more amazingly, gave her almost free reign to reinvent the franchise according to her vision. She and Hasbro both brought in much additional great talent, and the current show was born.
The series focuses on the magical world of Equestria, inhabited by Ponies as well as many other magical and mystical creatures. Here, 'Pony' doesn't mean an immature horse, but a trio of inter-related equine-like fantasy races: Unicorns, who can use a variety of magic powers; Pegasi, who can fly and manage the weather; and Earth Ponies, who have the least magic but who seem to grow all the food and run all the cities. The land is ruled by a pair of immortal sisters, Celestia and Luna, who embody traits of all three races and are powerful enough to control the rising and setting of the sun and moon.
The main character of the series is Twilight Sparkle, a nerdy, book-obsessed unicorn and introverted student of Princess Celestia. Her first adventure lands her in Ponyville, a small town that's the series' main setting, where she makes five unexpected friends while searching for the legendary Elements of Harmony during a crisis. After the danger passes, she moves to Ponyville permanently to be with her friends. Many adventures, some small and some epic, ensue as the former lonely geek learns the importance of friendship.
The earlier episodes, especially the two-part pilot, were very uneven in many places. But eventually, the stories became more polished, the characters became sharper and more three-dimensional, the humor became more sophisticated, and their former cookie-cutter fantasy world became shaped by a number of very interesting ideas. In many ways, its evolution writing-wise has mirrored Star Trek: The Next Generation, in that both series started out with middling pilots, lurched through a number of episodes that were obvious awkward growing pains, but eventually found their strides and elevated themselves up to the top of their respective genres. While many episodes of MLP are still merely fair with a peppering of a few stinkers, when MLP is good, it can be amazingly good.
Case in point was its recent popular and well-received two-part season ender. In fact, I think 'A Canterlot Wedding' may be the series' 'Best of Both Worlds' moment, to take another comparison from TNG; the episode that not only shattered all previous expectations about what the show could be, but made the rest of the world sit up and notice just how good it had become. Reviewers compared the episode to Disney animated features; in the animation world, there's little higher praise, and certainly almost unheard of for a TV cartoon. For me personally, I have to confess that Part 2 of "A Canterlot Wedding" was probably the single funnest half hour of TV I've watched all year.
I think what makes the show stand out so much is not any one thing, but a mix of all the creative elements firing on all cylinders. There's also the show's evolution in sophistication. It clearly started out being aimed exclusively at a younger audience, but its quality and smart writing attracted a sizable adult audience, so teh creators began catering to them as well. Hasbro recently claimed that the show's intended audience is now children between 5 and 11 and their parents. I think that "...and their parents" part makes all the difference. Its still very much a kid-friendly show, with occasional Looney-Tune jokes and Scooby-Doo chases and a lesson to be learned at the end of every episode. But its stories and characters are smart and savvy enough that adults can find a lot to enjoy as well.
A good example may be the character of Rarity. The main six characters are all young adults, so Rarity owns her own small dress maker's shop and dreams of becoming a premiere fashion designer. On any other kids' cartoon, or even on many live action adult shows, she would be the shallow, snobbish fashionista, most likely even an antagonist. But on MLP, she is portrayed as a struggling artist and businesswoman (er...businesspony) who is often harassed by clients and struggles to get her business noticed. She does have a touch of vanity and selfishness, but is also generous in many things. Despite being the most 'girly' of the main characters she's almost always portrayed as smart and strong-willed. I believe she is the most complex and mature of the main characters, and likely the one most adults will most easily identify with. The fact that a show like this even has a character like Rarity points to the amount of thought and care that goes into the writing.
Another aspect of the show I really enjoy is how unabashedly American it is in tone. I know some reading this are groaning that I may be segueing into shallow flag-waving, but hear me out. So much of fantasy--G-rated or R-rated, adult oriented or for kids, animated or live action--is derived so nakedly from European models or, more recently with the advent of anime, from Japanese or eastern traditions. Even great new shows like Game of Thrones is based loosely on the medieval european model.
While MLP has a location that does have a traditional fantasy feel--namely Canterlot, where the ruling Princesses reside--the show's main setting, Ponyville and much the rest of Equestria, has very much an American small town character, despite its mishmash of architecture. There are bowling alleys and family farms, old-fashioned school houses and a roller rink, beauty spas and yellow taxis (pulled by ponies, of course) and more. Equestria even has its own version of the Wild West and New York City ('Manehattan.') While this mash up can seem a bit awkward at times, its very refreshing to see a new approach, especially one based on American settings and traditions.
All in all, I do think that we're seeing a great new fantasy franchise emerging in My Little Pony:Friendship Is Magic. One more family-friendly and filled with more whimsy than the others I've noted, but that can be as much a source of uniqueness and strength as a liability. Will it fulfill such a promise? We'll have to see if it can keep up the quality of its stories. But I do think it has the potential. And I'll be one of the ones cheering for it.