My Little Pony: The Movie **1/2

A candy-colored ode to the transformational power of friendship, this breezy product placement gallery, squarely aimed at grade-schoolers (and their moms), gallops to a rousing finale after a formulaic and listless first half. Not for everypony, but it won over this workhorse reviewer. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

The opening shot of “My Little Pony: The Movie” shows it's aiming a little higher than your typical animated toy showcase, literally. A majestic shot of fluffy clouds that recalls the start of Disney's “Hunchback of Notre Dame” is set to The Go-Go's' “We Got the Beat” as it whisks viewers over Equestria, a magical land where anime-eyed, four-legged revelers come together by hoof and by air. The festive scene brings to mind Munchkinland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The look is clean, the colors are bright, and the potential for a disarming matinee charmer is so palpable, you feel like you can reach across the scene and touch these horsies' manes. Then they start talking, and it's clear director Jayson Thiessen is saddled with a lot of franchise baggage.

For viewers unfamiliar with the most current incarnation of the “My Little Pony” TV show (including this “brony” critic), it feels like you've been dropped in the middle of an episode with the assumption you already know who's who. But despite their myriad colors and features (some are winged, some have horns), the characters' faces all look more or less the same, increasing the disorientation.

It doesn't help that the story, centering on Twilight Sparkle (the voice of Tara Strong), the youngest, lavender-colored princess of this fabled land, as she grapples with the pressure she's feeling organizing a friendship festival, is more than a little generic. Thiessen, working from a screenplay by Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao and Michael Vogel, has a lot of ground to cover, but he doesn't spend enough screen time laying the groundwork that could make the narrative easier to process.

Twilight's anxiety about the event she's been tasked by her elders to put together takes a back seat to an invasion by rogue pony Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), who's doing the bidding of the Storm King (Liev Schreiber), a megalomaniac who looks like the Abominable Snowman and behaves like a Wall Street CEO. Tempest, who's clearly aced Maleficent's Guide to Villainy despite her broken horn, wants to harness the royal ponies' magic, but she needs all princesses in order to deliver world domination to her employer. A dark shadow falls over the land as Twilight and several friends make their escape and the rest of Ponyville's residents are enslaved.

What follows is a standard-issue heroes' journey, peppered with upbeat but unmemorable musical numbers. Twilight and friends cross paths with a feline ruffian (Taye Diggs) with shady allegiances, a swashbuckling fowl (Zoe Saldana) who's repressed her seafaring past, and an underwater queen-princess duo (Uzo Aduba and a scene-stealing Kristin Chenoweth) straight out of “The Little Mermaid.” The big-name voice cast clearly relishes the opportunity to get in touch with their inner spirit animals, but the episodic nature of these encounters fails to make Twilight's quest for redemption particularly distinctive.

It's understandable if you feel the desire to check out of this feature-length Saturday morning cartoon at the halfway point, but then a funny thing happens: by exploring the theme of friendship and what it entails, “My Little Pony: The Movie” eventually snaps into focus. It goes beyond its pretty widescreen facade. The filmmakers not only give Twilight the freedom to make mistakes, and experience the consequences, they also give Blunt's wicked antagonist an arc that allows the “Devil Wears Prada” actress to find the wounded soul inside. A niftily rendered flashback scene is reminiscent of the opening scene of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which showed how Sméagol became Gollum.

By contrast, Schreiber's wisecracking despot feels one-note and uninspired, as do some members of Twilight's entourage. The notable exception here is Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman), a squeaky-voiced prima donna who unearthed in this critic long-buried memories of birthday parties from the distant past. She's the well-meaning but nosy and obnoxious classmate we've all had at one point in our lives. For fans of George Cukor's “The Women,” Pinkie is Rosalind Russell to Twilight's Norma Shearer. (Really, if you've never seen “The Women,” what are you waiting for?) The film is at its strongest when Pinkie, in all her Pepto Bismol-colored glory, is doling out some tough love to her bestie.

“My Little Pony: The Movie” is made out of spare parts from better movies, but Thiessen and his collaborators are borrowing from the right sources to make kiddie fare that's a little better than the sum of its parts, thanks in large part to a strong third act that sends you home with a goofy grin and a warm glow. And besides, where else are you going to see Sia play a vocally gifted pony with bangs hiding her eyes? As guilty pleasures go, she helps makes this one go down so easy.

All photos courtesy of Lionsgate/Hasbro.

Cron Job Starts