Today we have a special edition of TRS Round Table for you, reader! The TRS Round Table is a group discussion and review about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and related media. Many of us have seen Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony, formerly known as Bronycon: The Documentary. This documentary, spearheaded by John de Lancie, attempts to look at fans of the show in a different light. Joining the Round Table today are BartonFink, Pineapple, Headless Horse, KefkaFloyd, Dr.Dinosaur, drunkill, and for the first time, frequent forums poster Perrydotto, whom you might know from GalaCon!
Read beyond the cut to check our thoughts.
KefkaFloyd: Well, let’s get into the nitty gritty, shall we? What were our expectations, as a group, for this documentary? Was it an uplifting portrayal of an unfairly maligned group? An unjustified whitewash of a fandom with an underbelly? A lovable tale of offbeat individuals and their triumphs? The cringefest we might’ve expected? Go!
Pineapple: A look at nerds, who are mostly not that interesting. Disapproving dads were hilarious though. There were only a few cringey moments, although one of them was rather big.
BartonFink: This may be personal taste, but I often find subject matter dealing with “regular people” to be as interesting as the extraordinary. I would actually put that as a strength, here – a good amount of the human storylines deal with regular, if a bit odd, people who find some solace in a fandom. In fact, I think my favorite “characters” here were the German couple, precisely because it plays out a simple, likable, and real human interest story.
Headless Horse: If this were a documentary about some other fandom, I’d probably view it with pity or sordid fascination rather than sympathetic curiosity. Bronies are just like any fannish subculture, attracting much the same kind of people. John de Lancie is surely quite familiar with the type from his Trek experience, and I’m a little amused to see him presenting bronies as something unique.
BartonFink: My frame of reference for this documentary was always Trekkies, the 1997 exploration of the Star Trek fandom. That always struck me as finding the right balance of fascination with its subject without turning into gawking. If that’s a home run, I think Bronies covers the same basic ethic without nailing the execution as well.
The actual film dealt with this a bit better than the trailer led me to believe: the trailer’s focus on “I had nothing in my life, until pony” comes off a bit differently than the producers probably intended. Luckily, this was minimal in the actual film.
Headless Horse: But let’s at least give it this: the goal of the thing was to present bronies in a positive light, and to offer a counterpoint to the “freak-show” presentations that the news media and TV sitcoms have offered the public until now. I’d say it definitely does that, even if its message is a bit muddled. And I’m glad it exists, at the end of the day.
KefkaFloyd: My opinion has always been that bronies, in terms of a fandom, are not all that different from other prior fandoms I’ve been involved in. The same sort of people, the same sort of drama, but the difference this time is that there’s a lens pointed at it. The dawn of social media has taken fandoms out of the ghettos of online forums and dank corner basements and out into the broader world thanks to Facebook and Twitter, where your otherwise erstwhile acquaintances might never have learned about the things you do in your offtime. The documentary doesn’t really address any of the hows or whys of it happening, instead choosing to focus on individuals and by doing so raises a lot of questions that it doesn’t spend much time answering.
Perrydotto: I would definitely not say that the documentary hit its goal of being accessible and self explanatory enough to fandom outsiders. A lot of parts feel confusing and injokey, and it’s clear that the gap between fandom friendly and outsider friendly wasn’t closed at all. What the documentary however does manage to be is a positive portrayal of the fans. It’s arguable whether we needed a film that shows some bronies and how they are decent people, but I definitely don’t mind this existing, and it hits some very positive notes. Overall, I enjoyed the film, despite its issues.
BartonFink: The documentary made a strategic call to focus more on the fandom than the show, giving it only some backstory and general claims of “it’s really good”. Is this ample given the fandom focus, a missed opportunity, or somewhere inbetween?
Headless Horse: Let’s put it this way: I don’t think I could send the documentary to a skeptical friend and expect it to make him understand why I’m part of this fandom.
KefkaFloyd: Agreeing with Headless here. It doesn’t explain much about the mechanics of why the fandom exists at all. The most illuminating bits, Lauren’s, are still fairly disconnected from the crazy “how did I get here?” premise of the film. John de Lancie said that the film was supposed to show fans in a positive light, to counteract the negative perceptions in mainstream press. I guess it did that, in some form. The lives of the people featured in the doc did improve from start to finish in various ways. However, I thought that was probably the least interesting of stories they could have told, when you consider what Lauren was trying to do and how hard it was for the creative team in the early going. It was a missed opportunity.
Perrydotto: Definitely would have to watch this together with people to fill in on missing details, otherwise this is not suitable for any skeptics. The (really well done) bits with show staff hint at what could have been – You can feel just how many tales are under the surface of those few scenes. It wasn’t the goal of the documentary to show those tales, though, and I think it’s likely it could have never been. Too many issues behind the scenes would prevent a full documentary on the show’s background. The fandom focus in the Bronies documentary works out, I think, simply because it’s something that was easy enough to do and harmless enough, as opposed to getting in trouble with the powers that be.
BartonFink: Who is watching this, anyway? Per de Lancie at BronyCon, part of his motivation was correcting misperceptions about bronies as represented in the media. This certainly implies the documentary should be of interest to the “uninitiated”. How does this work for non-brony viewers?
drunkill: As a documentary I think it fails to contain enough easily absorbed basic information about the fandom for a ‘non-initiate’. The songs were fine at conveying a bit of general information but there was no real narration or overhead guidance in this which could have been confusing for a non-fan to watch if they didn’t know the different segments of the fandom at large.
BartonFink: I actually do know this stuff, and I didn’t quite pick up on intricacies of the hipster/moderate concept until I gave it a rewatch. I feel like you’d need to treat it like a lecture to pick up on all the subject matter touched upon.
KefkaFloyd: The songs were a infodump of whirlwind pace, yet you don’t really learn much from them at all, because the terminology has to be explained outside the context of the song anyway. I do have to give them credit for being well animated, though. Honestly, the documentary was paid for by backers who are fans, and while Brockhoff and company are giving lip service to film festivals and the like, I find it very hard to believe that most film festival audiences will be able to follow along. Even in its very TLC-esque cutting and direction, the documentary spends a little too much time on why people are a bit weird, instead of actually examining the mystery factor behind the show’s appeal.
Perrydotto: There’s some pretty nifty and accesible attempts at explaining just how such a massive group of people who like a show works, but it has a lot of holes. I deal with the fandom daily and yet I had no clue what the whole hipster/moderate bit was about. It’s a shame, because with a few more lines of elaboration and focus between the segments, any confusion could have been cleared up immediately. As it stands, the non-brony audience is expected to draw a lot of conclusions themselves, and I don’t know how much that will happen.
BartonFink: The documentary is notable for its inclusion of “fan made” material, namely the animated segments by various fan animators (Matt Sullivan, Richard Sirois of ‘Children of the Night’, JanAnimations) and the inclusion of a decent amount of “brony music”, including an extensive documentation of Living Tombstone’s rise to (brony) fame. Was this a good representation of fan creativity?
Headless Horse: The animated song segments (which are modeled on Tom Lehrer’s “Elements” song, which itself borrows its music from The Pirates of Penzance) is meant as a high-density information-dump for the non-initiated, but I think it only really works well from a fan’s perspective. It’s just too fast-paced and too much of a surprise for a viewer who isn’t expecting to suddenly be inundated with information delivered in a patter song. Especially because the sharp-edged, stylized pony designs do take a little bit of getting used to and are sort of jarring to first-time viewers; and on top of that the animation art isn’t quite show-accurate enough to avoid looking a little off-putting (especially on the professor character). Only Pony fans are going to be so interested in the lyrics and so comfortable with the art that they’ll roll back the video and watch it again. Everybody else is just going to go “Wait… the hell did I just watch?”
drunkill: There are many aspects to the content creating side of the fandom, the most easily shown off in a production such as this is music, which they focused on in a few segments.. While the animations were fun and well made they just lacked the magic spark of the show, which is brought to us by dozens and dozens of people around the world. Technically it was well made, especially for two or three people working on it but being primarily a gimmick and a little self-aware meant it didn’t have the same feeling or innocence as the show’s animations or colour palettes.
BartonFink: It’s a bit of a cognitive disconnect – I thought the de Lancie song sequences were pretty entertaining on their own, but if their primary purpose was to inform the audience, I can’t say they really nailed it.
I’m willing to be forgiving here, since it was a clever concept and pretty fun on its own.
KefkaFloyd: I mentioned it earlier and I agree with the sentiments here. JdL actually did a fairly decent job for a talky-type singing, and there were some clever bits of animation. But unless you’re sitting there with google, a lot of the terms might go over a new watcher’s head. I found the lack of attention given to fanartists and customizers to be disturbing, and this is probably due to the nature of who was contributing to the doc as well. I’m guessing a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor, but there was very little emphasis on WHY, exactly, this show caused people to create beyond basic platitudes. Notice a trend here?
Perrydotto: The animation segments and the bits about fandom artists were pretty well done, methinks, and conveyed a lot of the fun that the art side of things is all about. The song was joyful and both The Living Tombstone and Laserpon3 were portrayed as smart, talented people. I, as part of this fandom, enjoyed the portions on art greatly. Sadly, again, a lack of focus becomes clear; we only see certain sides of the creative community and the connection to the show wasn’t quite there. Another part that could have been better by heaps and bounds if only for some more explanation.
KefkaFloyd: The Pony fandom isn’t just bronies, either. What about others who had been carrying the torch all these years? And what about the history of My Little Pony? Doesn’t that factor in at all?
Pineapple: As a long time pony fan, I found the bit of the song mentioning previous generations not only insulting, but mean spirited and not backed up with anything. It fits with the general pattern of a total lack of research or focus in this film. You could take someone who’s never seen any incarnation of My Little Pony before FiM, have them watch Chad Rocco’s My Little Pony Retrospective (it has some factual errors like calling MLP Tales “G2″ but actually treats it’s subject with interest and a little affection instead of undisguised scorn), and with nothing more than a 20 minute run down they could write a minute or two about strengths and faults of the previous shows and ways they influenced or were improved upon by FiM.
Maybe that doesn’t fit in your song, but it doesn’t have to be part of a song. You’re doing a goddamn documentary, do you need another hundred grand to have someone sit down at the computer for an afternoon to do research?
KefkaFloyd: The complete lack of mention of previous generation fans and how the relationship between the new group that came in with Friendship is Magic combined with the complete dismissal of previous gens is a subject that could have added a lot of light to the documentary. While I don’t see much overt malice in the song, the dismissive tone towards previous gens (which, while not perfect, were definitely products of their time and important to many people) doesn’t really help the viewer understand why or how they would have contributed to the stigma that these people felt. It helps perpetuate a bad relationship and shows the lack of understanding and respect for those that kept the lights on until Generation 4 came out.
Perrydotto: I don’t care much for the previous generations of pony, but I didn’t care for the way they were handled in the documentary either. I sound like a broken record by this point but again, just some lines of explanation and some additional shots could have cleared up so much. The closest thing we get is seeing is a (very sweet) animated short with young Lauren playing with G1 pony toys. Is that enough? I don’t think so.
Headless Horse: You can tell what they were trying to do: they wanted to convey to a skeptical audience that we (bronies) aren’t all just cartoon-obsessed nutcases or people who uncritically watch children’s shows like Teletubbies or Dora the Explorer out of some kind of mentally regressive security-blanket psychosis. You know that’s what a lot of non-fans think bronies are. And so the documentary tries to take the same tack that a lot of fans do: “I like this one particular iteration of the show, which is something special—not like those other Pony shows, which I—like all sane rational people—regard as garbage.” Unfortunately that’s a very difficult stance to take without being so cruelly dismissive of the previous generations that you just turn into a Babs Seed-esque validation-seeking bully.
KefkaFloyd: What about the technical bits of actually making the movie, like editing, directing, and cinematography? Any armchair (or actual!) filmmakers in the crowd want to add their thoughts?
Pineapple: It just meandered. Here’s some british bronies, this one can’t ask for directions and has a bad hat. Now here’s some german bronies, they are in love and in the same fandom isn’t that amazing? Now here’s The Living Tombstone with subtitles for no reason because his english is clearer than some of the brits we showed you earlier.
Headless Horse: That bugged me too. I’d have been felt fairly insulted if I were Tombstone.
KefkaFloyd: And yet there were bits when the German participants were talking and there were no subtitles. Talk about confusing.
Pineapple: There’s no clear thesis and threads just seem to be dropped and picked up without much rhyme or reason. I am a fan and I found it confusing, I can’t imagine how bad it is for non-fans.
BartonFink: On the technical ends of the production, the editing bugged me the most. At too many times I felt a bit tossed around as a viewer, as though the documentary had too much information to tell us and ended up cramming a bit. In one sequence, we begin with Dr. Psych Ology discussing the different brony personality types; we then get a critical point about escapism in the post-9/11 world – a fair critical point, but the placement makes it seem inappropriate and odd. Within a minute after that, we’re onto a (cute and well done) animated representation of Lauren Faust envisioning the show as a child.
All of these sequences are fine considerations on their own, but they lack much coherency when tossed together like this.
Dr.Dinosaur: I must say the editing seemed rushed. It’s the kind of thing I would see as a first rough cut to meet a deadline. Documentaries, even though the are supposed to follow real events, they also should tell a narrative story. I have been a fan of documentaries for a long time, and the one thing in common with all of the documentaries I enjoyed is that there is a constant narrative, and informational asides. Some even have parallel narratives. This documentary started to do that, the living tombstone, the one young kid, but sort of jumped around too much for it’s own good. It lost track of the story it was trying to tell and it kind of fell apart. Simple additions like a visual and auditory transition to indicate the changing of continents would have helped greatly.
KefkaFloyd: I’m not much of a filmmaker, so I’m not sure where I can really criticize when it comes to cinematography. A common complaint is that it feels like a TLC special, and that’s not really a coincidence—Brockhoff has produced many that you might have heard of. It feels a bit voyeuristic, and I suppose giving us a window into these people’s lives is supposed to get us to care about them, but the window is not deep enough. There are arcs set up for each of the bronies, but because of the erratic cuts and jumping around from story to story, it’s a bit hard to really feel for them. A narrator or some form of guide (which I assumed de Lancie would be doing, but was only done as “Professor Pony” in limited segments) would have helped considerably.
I did appreciate that the person who did the motion graphics actually used the correct Generation B font and not Celestia Medium (redux or otherwise) for the titling, so to that person, you have my thanks.
Perrydotto: Definitely not the best editing I’ve ever seen. I appreciate that the film tries to break out of its TV special mold, but it doesn’t really succeed.
KefkaFloyd: We’ve touched on this a bit in earlier comments, but there was significant participation by the creative team behind the show, but very little of it actually shows up in the film proper. Most of it will be available as bonus features on the Blu-Ray Disc version, though.
Dr.Dinosaur: Shame really, those were some of my favourite parts.
drunkill: The Cast & Crew segments, while short, were great additions to the overall film. They gave a bit of extra narrative to tie it back into the show. What is really exciting and I’m glad the making of this documentary enabled is the multi-hour interviews with Faust and de Lancie to be sold as extras on the Blu-Ray. While some things probably won’t get talked about it is a good chance for some questions on thoughts and feelings that differ to what the normal convention panel questions ask. These will probably be the best things to come out of this entire project for the interested parties.
KefkaFloyd: John de Lancie had his heart in the right place with this, and between seeing him in person at BronyCon and watching this film, I could stand to listen to his dulcet tones chew on scenery all day long. But I think his collaborators let him down, because the most interesting parts of the film, the ones about the people who actually made this thing possible, are woefully short. Lauren and Amy Keating Rogers’ stories by themselves could have made a compelling film. They’re the ones who have the answers for the questions that the documentary raises—”Why are people interested in this? Why is it so good?” and yet due to editing or the wrong questions being asked, we don’t really get those answers. Getting the viewer invested in the source is what will ultimately lead to their understanding of the people portrayed in the film.
Pineapple: It seems like there’s a whole documentary’s worth of stuff about the show rather than about the fans on the cutting room floor. I would rather have watched THAT documentary.
Headless Horse: The unfortunate fact is, though—the whole story of the show itself won’t be properly told until it’s all over and Lauren is free to go into more detail about the things she’s kept quiet about all this time. There’s a reason we don’t know everything there is to know yet.
Perrydotto: I’m absolutely fine with this film being about the fans. That’s what it wanted to be from the get-go and I never expected anything else. Heck, the con I staff at was filmed, and I wouldn’t have welcomed the film team with open arms if I didn’t know what to expect. However, with the lack of explanation, it doesn’t quite pull off what it WANTS to be – Presenting an accesible introduction to the fandom to the general public. I really hope we will get a proper documentary on the background of the show itself one day, if executive meddling doesn’t interfere; however, I judge this documentary here on what it strives to be, and not what we might want it to be. For what it’s worth, it did a decent job.
KefkaFloyd: And that’s a wrap for this edition of TRS Round Table! Come by again for more discussion and thoughts about Friendship is Magic. ■