It’s not the animation alone that draws adult fans in droves to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It’s not the writing. It’s not the comedy, or the voice acting, or the music, or the art design, or the old-school injokes, or even the irresistible sweetness and cuteness (which somehow manages to make the show more appealing to adult tastes than it otherwise might be, instead of rendering it more predictably unwatchable).
Sure, all of those things help, and without any one of them the show would be a shadow of itself, and it would be a lot harder to stay spellbound by it. But there’s one key ingredient that ties the gestalt of the show together, that make all those other factors into indispensable pieces of the whole rather than curiosities and bonuses for die-hard animation fans to appreciate and everyone else to happily ignore.
That, as veteran comic artist Doug TenNapel clarifies in a wonderful blog post, is the characters—specifically, the truth of the characters. It’s the fact that in FiM, as in any well-conceived piece of fiction, the characters—no matter how fanciful their abilities or the setting in which they live—are fundamentally relatable to us.
Stories aren’t about other people, they’re about us. Darth Vader isn’t just Luke’s father, if he was we couldn’t feel anything about their relationship. But we know what Luke is feeling because we all have fathers, so Vader is our father and Luke is us. If you think I’m saying that your father can move objects with his mind, then I’ve lost you. If you’ve ever feared that you might pick up some of the more negative traits of your parents then you get it.
TenNapel, the creator of Earthworm Jim and many other comic and animation works, isn’t writing about FiM specifically, but his points are as applicable to the phenomenon of FiM’s success with discerning fans of fiction as they are to any of the properties he specifically cites.
The “secret sauce” is that the characters are true; they feel real to us. It sounds simplistic, but there’s a profound piece of insight in his thesis—that what makes us appreciate a fantasy story with an astounding setting and show-stopping epic events is not the special effects of the vast space battles or the implied enormity of the consequences the plot points have on the story’s universe. They help, but they wouldn’t stick with us if it weren’t for the characters around which all those earth-shaking events swirl.
What’s more, those characters don’t add that all-important accessibility to the story unless they’re real. We have to be able to relate to them. This sounds like basic first-year creative-writing advice, but it’s a lesson seldom taken to heart by the creators of many mainstream pieces of fiction proffered for our consumption. It’s especially rare in children’s entertainment, particularly in the kind of shows that set the stage and the level of expectation against which Friendship is Magic first appeared, and which ensured that it was met with gaping incredulity by so many thousands of people who couldn’t quite believe what they were watching, not to mention falling in love with.
In our forums, Wylie expands on TenNapel’s thoughts:
Look at, for example, Hurricane Fluttershy. How many times, and in how many ways, has that story been told throughout the ages? It’s in everything from the Bible (the story of the widow’s mite, where her tiny offering was celebrated because it was all she had to give) to Shakespeare to movies to anime. And it’s a damn good story, with a good moral behind it. But if the characters telling the story aren’t real to us, everything falls apart.
I think this is the biggest difference between previous animated versions of Pony and this one—previous-gen pony wouldn’t touch a story like Hurricane Fluttershy with a ten-foot pole. And if they did, they’d have been sure to remove all the narrative tension beforehand, so that nobody got their feelings hurt along the way. Also, someone would break into song out of nowhere. That kind of toothless storytelling just doesn’t ring true to us.
But life doesn’t do toothless storytelling. Life gives you an older sister that has no idea how you tick, for example. Life gives you the innate ability to provide 2.3 wingpower when everyone else is pushing 10. And then, because one-in-a-million shots happen way more often than that, circumstances present themselves so that your 2.3 wingpower is exactly what everyone else needs. That’s real. That’s true. When Fluttershy has her save-the-day moment at the end of the story, we celebrate with her because we’ve all been in her position before- we’ve all felt like the slowest kid in class, or the guy at work who’s next for a pink slip, and it feels good to see her triumph for us. TenNapel uses G.K. Chesterson’s quote: “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Watching Fluttershy beat that particular dragon is one of those more-than-true moments that we’re all here for.
Naturally, the world of FiM is not “real” in the literal sense—there’s no magical land of Equestria populated by candy-colored ponies who can kick rain out of clouds or file books onto shelves with telekinesis. But everything the ponies in it are shown doing, we can relate to something we’ve experienced in our own lives—and that’s not something that’s true of every story on the mass market today.
Even some of the most highly regarded animated shows, such as Phineas & Ferb and Invader Zim, derive their appeal from schtick rather than true character-driven narratives. The characters in these shows act out intricate and often hysterically funny stories within their chosen milieus, but they’re always trapped by the recurring formulas of their episodes’ established structures and their characters’ long-running, unchanging motivations. Phineas and Ferb will never be exposed in their gadget-making by their sister, nor will Zim’s feckless invasion of Earth be foiled by Dib. To do so would mean irreparably subverting their shows’ premises; more than that, it would mean taking their characters and their motivations beyond the carefully defined bounds of schtick comedy that define them.
FiM doesn’t typically do schtick (except, perhaps, for Rarity—for whom being “on” is the literal truth of her character, an act we know she’s putting on for her own benefit). What it does do, instead, is allow its stories to flow from the very real motivations of the characters—characters that act and react in ways that we, as real people, find entirely believable. What the ponies are depicted confronting might be fantasy beasts and magical mysteries, but they always react to those challenges in the way we would if we were there in their horseshoes.
All the fantastical situations the ponies find themselves in throughout the series have elements of allegory in them, or at least applicability—no matter how wild and far-fetched they might seem, or how alien the cartoon universe they inhabit. They might be contending with an invasion of insidiously cute parasprites, or defending the fillies they’re babysitting from a rampaging cockatrice in the Everfree Forest, or even suffering the indignity of the pony-universe manifestation of Q casting them into a hallucinogenic maze. What makes these situations different from typical lightweight “shtick” fantasy is that these aren’t merely excuses for the protagonists to wield otherworldly powers, to chant a catchphrase and banish their foes to the land of wind and ghosts; rather, the solutions they employ are the kinds of solutions we would employ if we were them. This renders their challenges as relatable as they are themselves, and like Luke’s passionate struggle with learning the dark truth of his father’s line of work, the ponies’ predicaments and foes attain the same metaphorical relatability that they themselves display. The parasprites might as well be a burrow of backyard rabbits, cute but numerous—and a threat to your vegetable garden, no matter how heartbreaking it is to have to lay out poison. The cockatrice becomes a chilling stand-in for a kidnapper lurking in the neighborhood park, within easy walking distance for three unruly kids. Even Discord could be a manipulative, jealous family member who sees an opportunity to advance his own standing by undermining your valued relationships with your friends.
And that all just makes the more mundane stories ring all the more true. “Sisterhooves Social”. “Green Isn’t Your Color”. “Ponyville Confidential”. Those stories we can interpret literally, without any allegory, and yet the characters’ reactions in them to the challenges they face aren’t any more “realistic” there than they are in the “fantasy” stories. In the end, whether the ponies are reacting to the threat of a teeth-gnashing mythical beast or to the discomfort of having to balance a new career path with your best friend’s jealousy, the heart of each story is found in the very human way the ponies deal with their problems—the way each of us might, drawing on our own personal strengths and motivations.
TenNapel quotes Tolkien:
Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation for the sorrow of this world, but an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’
Tolkien famously detested allegory “in all its manifestations”; on the face of it this seems to be a fundamental contradiction. Isn’t the applicability of characters’ experiences to those of the readers a form of allegory? Doesn’t fantasy, by Tolkien’s definition, imply exactly that kind of metaphorical relationship with the truth of the story that the characters experience?
The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is no. There’s a big difference between the kind of metaphor he despised—fantasy storytelling being used as window-dressing for a didactic political or moral message, the kind of thing TenNapel derides as “propaganda”—and the narrative use of situations that are grounded in reality, no matter how supernatural or spectacular, in order to invest us emotionally.
It’s ironic, then, that the kind of allegory Tolkien was belittling was the sort of thinly disguised preaching that his friend and writing colleague C.S. Lewis used in his crypto-Christian stories of Narnia, whereas TenNapel’s final paragraph draws for its inspiration on Lewis himself:
“But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” – C.S. Lewis
A magician never reveals the secret to his magic trick and Lewis just gave everything away right there. We cast things into an imaginary world to steal past the watchful dragons of a skeptical, jaded, modernist society. My readers do erect dragons, but I’m going to get past them. How do you get past a dragon? You don’t run in swinging your sword and stabbing it in the face. That’s what we do when we write propaganda, or political screeds that wake the dragon and infuriate him all in one go! A knight would be cooked for sure if he tried such a tact! We need to be sneaky. Now hush! Take off those clanking boots and tip toe with me! We have nothing to worry about. If we fail at making these characters believable we’ll just be fried and eaten by a giant demonic lizard! Do you see what I’m doing to you right now?
Whether Lewis or Tolkien meant their words to be taken this way or not, their examples provide a neat spectrum on which to lay our experience of fantasy stories. At Tolkien’s pole is the naturalistic, character-driven adventure epic, whereas Lewis’ most famous works embrace a more mystical, symbolic approach to fantasy storytelling. But both authors have a fundamental understanding of what makes a story compelling to its readers: characters that draw you in to their world by being human, people whose actions mirror what the reader would have done in their place, rather than by merely being ciphers whose shallow schtick is little more than an excuse to show more fantastical special effects. In other words, the best fantasy stories know that the characters are the important part of the story—and the worst ones think the fantasy itself is what the audience is there for.
A graphic novel character can be a normal human or a talking wisp floating out of a haunted bog, but it still has to ring true. And the thing that makes it false isn’t the skin, because we’ve all seen some terrible movies that have only human characters in realistic situations but the people were drawn so shallow, so ham-fisted that there wasn’t anything true about them. Then take a look at Return of the Jedi when Han is thawed from the block of carbon and thrown into a prison cell with Chewie. They hug each other… that’s true! We all believe it.
We, the readers and viewers, know intrinsically that without relatable characters, there simply is no story. While a universe founded on schtick might be funny and memorable and universally beloved, years later we’ll only remember the schtick, and not the individual stories that the characters inhabited. Even in a self-aware iteration like Pinky and the Brain, in which the premise of the story is a lampshade hung before us at the end of every episode with the line “The same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world!“, our abiding memory of the show in general is the wry sense of humor that gave rise to such a tongue-in-cheek subversion of the trope-infested world it parodied. Those two mice might produce for us a half-hour of brilliant comic antics, but in the end we’re never surprised by what we got. We never learn anything new about ourselves by seeing a piece of our own personalities in the protagonists. Like with Invader Zim and Dib, we never find ourselves rooting for anyone in particular. They’re just there to make us laugh, knowing that we’re nothing like them—and thank goodness for it.
Ponies, on the other hand, are a different story entirely. We might relate directly to particular characters, recognizing ourselves as Twilight Sparkles or Fluttershys, or we might simply see such realism in all six of them that we can comfortably put ourselves in their positions and understand what motivates them. We can see where they’re coming from. We can understand Rarity’s need for validation and pursuit of success at the expense of her personal integrity and her willingness to associate with her embarrassingly middlebrow family. We can sympathize with Twilight’s fragility in tackling a new area of study—friendship—and the mysteries it forces her to face when she’s challenged by a rival who claims to be her superior and who makes her think that she must choose between technical competence and likability. And we can appreciate Fluttershy’s aversion to confrontation, yet we can feel a rush of righteous pride—in her and in the part of ourselves that connects with her—when she finds new strength within herself and stares down that attacker in the neighborhood park the moment he threatens the kids in her care.
These episodes touch us because, fantasy or not, they’re telling real stories, starring characters that may as well be our own selves. Crucially, too, the ponies aren’t Everyman, some common denominator with no personality who exists only as a dispassionate narrator; they’re far more rich and vibrant than that. The fact that there are six of them allows them to express portions of our own psyches that exist on the ragged edge of our own comfort zones, letting us explore ways of being that aren’t necessarily natural for us—but that we recognize as what would be understandable mindsets if we were them. This way, even a natural Fluttershy can relate to Rainbow Dash competing for fame and fortune, and someone who’s as nerdy and over-analytical in real life as Twilight Sparkle can exist for a few minutes in the simple, straightforward worldview of Applejack or the nonlinear fuzzy logic of Pinkie Pie. As “cartoony” as they might superficially appear, they all have a core of essential humanity that elevates them to a level that only writers who care enough to produce something truly special can create.
Oddly, it’s those few Pony episodes that don’t adhere so well to the truth of their characters’ humanity that help throw the ones that do into sharp relief. “The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well” and “MMMystery on the Friendship Express” both portray the ponies in roles that stretch believability—not because they’re doing incredible things in a magical fantasy world, but because their motivations don’t feel right to us. They aren’t the people we have come to know. The former episode depicts five of the friends engaging in a rather mean-spirited conspiracy to take a prideful Rainbow Dash down a notch; the latter has three of their number thoughtlessly (and inconsequentially) taking bites from a cake that Pinkie Pie is carefully guarding on the way to an important contest. These actions—including even those of Twilight, in a rare “schtick” performance as the stock cartoon brain who possesses the solution to the mystery—don’t ring true to us, because the characters aren’t quite the ponies we know and love. They look like them, they sound like them, they even elicit laughs like them—but like toddlers Stewie Griffin and Eliza Pinchley reenacting My Fair Lady, they’re recast temporarily as a mere narrative convenience. They’re strangers, and we can’t empathize with them the way we’re used to doing.
Yet through the example they set, episodes like “Suited For Success” and “The Last Roundup”—where they do fit the molds that makes them so familiar to us as realistic people—are shown even more vividly as the great narrative successes they are. Those stories buzz with a certain energy, like a tuning fork struck just right, that makes them into something special—and not just another cartoon whose characters are there for the sake of gags or plot devices. The character-driven pathos of “Sonic Rainboom” exists on a whole different level from the tongue-in-cheek parody of “Hearth’s Warming Eve”, and while the latter is certainly an entertaining half-hour, it’s inherently false—though the framing story does present a good excuse for it, it’s lacking that certain something that allows FiM in general to set a standard few other shows, even among those meant for adults, have achieved.
Reality and truth aren’t easy things to come by. It’s far simpler, in the often cynicism-saturated world of cartoon writing, to rely on the “easy” solution—parody and irony. These things have become so prevalent in our entertainment these days that we are taken aback when a new rebooted show isn’t just a satiric reimagining of some formerly-sincere property from decades past. But the sincerity, the reality, the truth of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is at the heart of its appeal, and the reason why new fans typically take as many as six or seven episodes to really fall in love with the show: that’s how long it takes to realize that there’s so much depth and continuity to the characters, being imbued into them by writers who care so much about them and about making them ring true to us in a way that formulaic cartoons seldom consider a priority. The cute animation and the high production values are an immediate hook, but it’s the underlying believable humanity of the characters that keeps the animation from being a mere gimmick—and sustains the show in all its vibrant energy for as long as there are interesting stories to tell. ■