MLP:FIM season 4, episodes 1+2 – “Princess Twilight Sparkle” – thoughts and review

So, it was rather obvious from the title that this was going to be a Twilight-centric episode (also not surprising since it’s the season premiere). I won’t bother with an actual synopsis of the episode; there are plenty of those scattered throughout the net, so I’ll just jump straight to what I thought of it. I’d assume it goes without saying, but there will be SPOILERS aplenty for both parts!

In short: I loved it. It completely exceeded my expectations, and I can’t think of more than a couple minor flaws.

The episode (okay, technically “two episodes”, but they aired back-to-back and comprise one two-part story, so from here on I’m going to mostly refer to them in the singular) very much WAS a Twilight-centric episode, and in that regard, it excelled. There were several ways in which Twilight’s personality and character came through very strongly. Of course, the list frenzy was an easy one. This is a gag that has been used before, but it’s effective here after the season 3/4 break due to the whole Princess angle: is she still basically the same adorkable Twilight we all know and love despite the additions of wings, a title, and a bit of height? The answer, as it turns out, is YES. More significant to that point than just this obvious call back, though, was the way they handled her wings. The opening of the episode has Twilight practicing for the part she will play in the upcoming Summer Sun Celebration (presumably, there have been other celebrations between the original pilot and now… though come to think of it, has there ever been anything that definitively reveals how much time is supposed to have passed in-universe during the course of the series?), which will apparently involve flying – of a slightly more advanced variety than what she is clearly capable of at the moment, as she stutters and stumbles (so to speak) her way through some exercises given to her by Rainbow Dash. Having Dashie coaching Twilight was, of course, an obvious direction to go, and given that it’s my favorite character helping my second favorite character learn to fly, I’m very glad they threw a bit of that in – frankly, I’d be happy to see more of this, either in this episode or in a future episode. By the end of part 2, Twilight has obviously gained some skill and confidence – enough to fly pretty fast and create this purple Twilight MagiBoom – but it would make sense if she has yet more to learn to really take advantage of those wings in her daily life. So I hope we see more of that.

But I digress: some noise was made about the brief flight at the end of “Magical Mystery Cure”, season 3’s finale. (Okay, a lot of noise was made about most aspects of that episode, such as… pretty much all of them. I liked it and was fine with Alicorn Twi from the get-go, but anyway…) The problem people had was that she just took off and flew, a decent distance, whilst singing merrily and appearing to not have a care in the world. This seemed to contradict the idea of her needing to get used to the wings, an idea which is made concrete by the early scenes in EQG – possibly the best parts of that entire movie (which, for the record, I liked much more than I thought I would, but it can’t touch the show. I give it a 6. Yeah, I could have written more about it, but I was neglecting my blog then, so whatever) – showing Twilight very much not used to her wings. The awkward attempted flight (and subsequent crash), as well as the hilarious bedroom scene, showed that this was indeed something she’d need to adjust to.

"Do, or do not. There is no tr-oof!"

“Do, or do not. There is no tr-oof!”

That’s the key. That’s what makes all the “needing to adjust to her wings” stuff in this and EQG work with the brief but flawless flight in MMC, and what makes this such a brilliant creative decision, and what makes Twilight’s use of her wings probably the most “Yep, she’s still Twilight!” aspect of the premiere. When she’s thinking about her flying, when she’s trying to do specific things and is conscious (overly so) of her altitude, wing speed, position, etc., that’s when she falters. Because she’s overthinking it. Which is a very Twilight thing to do. But when she lets go, trusts her instincts and just goes for it, then she can actually fly decently well – perhaps not on the level of the other Alicorns, or even on the level of your average pegasus, but still. A great example of this is during the aforementioned freak-out over getting everything done for the celebration; she lifts off and flaps up to the ceiling with no trouble at all because she’s not thinking about it. The only problem with her flying at that point was the presence of the ceiling, which she promptly banged her head on. I love this, because it is a very subtle way to show that Twilight’s character really hasn’t changed. And as to MMC: she wasn’t thinking about flying when she suddenly took off and soared into the camera at the very end. She was caught up in the coronation and the song and all the excitement and just took to the air, whoo! She probably crashed when the credits rolled.

Something else that I’ve seen discussed here and there is: what will happen to Twilight’s relationship with her friends now that she is a princess, with new responsibilities. Given the nature of this show, I never really believed that things would change all THAT much; I would have been quite surprised if either Twilight’s interactions with the rest of the mane 6 suddenly decreased dramatically, or if the screen time of the any of the other characters decreased dramatically. But what about in-universe? This being a children’s cartoon, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to hit this aspect head-on and devote any time in the season 4 opener to the topic… and yet they did precisely that. We have scenes of Twilight worrying that her friendships will change, worrying that she won’t get to see them as often, and then we have the others worrying over her safety in a way that they didn’t before, because now she’s officially a Princess, instead of just being their friend who happens to be a relatively important pony. Rather than just sidestepping it and sweeping it under the rug, continuing on without ever pausing to consider that Twilight’s Princess status might change things a bit, the episode takes the more difficult, more complex route by putting all of that out there plainly, and then coming back around to end with a reaffirmation of those friendships, and showing how all of the characters involved come to the realization that nothing – not fancy titles nor threats to Equestria – can take them away.

Which leads me to one dent in the armor. If there was a main weakness in the ep, I felt is was when the others sent Twi home. Not in terms of the concept – in that respect, it fits very well as part of the theme of exploring how Twilight’s “promotion” affects her friendships – but purely in terms of the execution of this particular scene itself. Perhaps if they’d had more time to show the dangers to Twilight, and built up this sense of unease among her friends over the course of several scenes, it would have worked a bit better. As it was, I could see what they were going for, but it felt somewhat forced.

It is saved, however, by the fact that it didn’t last. Twilight goes running back in to face the dangers with her friends not long after arriving back in Ponyville. Similarly, her friends reach the tree and quickly realize that they sent away the one pony that would have the best chance of figuring out what to do next. When they first sent her away, I thought Oh ok, this is going to drag out for a while with Twilight thinking her friends don’t want her around now that she’s a princess, and the others won’t realize that sending her away was a mistake until the last moment when she swoops back in somehow to save them. Given how awkward the sending away scene was in the first place, I found that idea a bit distasteful, and was happy to see that’s not how things played out after all, and that instead they all quickly realized that they needed each other, not only for solving crises but as friends.

And of course, the pièce de résistance for the episode has to be the Nightmare Moon memory dive. Ever since that storyboard animatic thing was revealed months ago we’ve been wondering just what we were seeing, and boy was the payoff well worth it. Actually watching that play out was amazing, and you could really feel Twilight’s helplessness – and later, once she realized what she was seeing, her confusion. And that moment when Celestia actually gets shot by one of NM’s magic attacks and falls to the ground with that blood-curdling scream was truly unsettling, especially when, immediately after, you can’t help but feel that for just a brief moment, Twilight truly thought the princess was dead – meaning really dead, because at this point, she hasn’t connected the dots and still believes she is watching something happening between “current” Celestia and Luna. It was a chilling scene, and an example of the kind of darker, heavier drama that I never expect to see much of in this show. Make no mistake: I don’t think there should be too many such moments. The nature and intent of the show means it shouldn’t be too serious or heavy most of the time. But having moments like this on occasion, for really big, significant stories like this one, works extremely well, and since they seldom happen, such scenes are that much more powerful for their rarity (darling!). This was easily one of the most well-crafted serious scenes of the entire show so far.

And just SEEING those events unfold! I’ve always thought that the lore and history in this world is actually really interesting; it’s one of the things that helped make me a fan of this show, the fact that Equestria is actually well thought-out and well realized as a fantasy world. So to get to witness Celestia banishing Luna as Nightmare Moon – an event that has been a big part of the show’s lore literally since day one – was amazing.

The only problem is that it made it look like Luna transformed into NM for the first time, followed almost immediately by the fight and banishment, which makes one wonder how anypony other than Celestia would remember NM. That I can recall, it’s never been stated exactly what NM did (if anything) before she was defeated by Celestia, though it seems to me that it’s always been implied that there was at least a small period – even if it’s only a few days – during which the moon never fell, a period which would have left a mark on anyone who lived through it. Which seems hard to reconcile with the brief appearance and immediate defeat, but it’s actually extremely easy to work around this. Simply, Twilight wasn’t actually seeing a precise rendition of everything that happened during that period of time, and was instead shown a compression of the important parts of what happened during that time, seeing what she needed to see. It makes sense when you think about it: these visions of the past, brought on by the magic potion provided by Zecora, aren’t going to appear as perfectly accurate documentary footage.

I loved the sequence with Celestia and Luna using the Elements against Discord. That he was caught and turned to stone mid-gloat (explaining why his “statue” held the pose that it did at the beginning of “Return of Harmony”) was absolutely brilliant, as were the sight gags leading up to his defeat. And of course, the best part of the whole thing was the double-switchback reveal that Discord was, in fact, behind the craziness in the present. It’s jut that he wasn’t behind it in quite the way that one would think (or that the mane 6 thought). Hell of a long-form plan on Discord’s part! I have to say, they got me with that one. I didn’t think anything of those little black things he was stuffing his face with until they outright told us what they were at the end of part 2. Very nicely done.

Speaking of the craziness: major points to the creators for coming up with something truly unsettling this time around. Those spiky vines and clouds were freakin CREEPY – especially when you see Dash up there trying to control them, and out comes the lightning; in all likelihood this is the first time in her life that Dash had to deal with storm clouds that were actively gunning for her. And that moment when Spike and Twilight look out the window and see the sun and moon both hanging in the sky was fantastic. Sent a chill down my spine, evoking a very well-realized sense of “this is very very wrong”.

Another great scene was when the other mane 6 come to Twilight’s rescue. AJ’s “Listen here you rabid rhododendrons!” line, punctuated by the group shot and Pinkie’s sudden party favor toot, was both awesome and hilarious.

"What do you think, Rarity? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious?"

“What do you think, Rarity? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious? Hilarisome, or Awesolarious?”

And at the end: a game-changer! No more Elements of Harmony! This is a fairly bold change to make to the show’s formula. Any future foe that they come across cannot be defeated by using the elements, because they simply don’t have them anymore. Really interesting move that will mean some different approaches to handling future threats and crises are likely in store. I also really liked how this was used to reaffirm the strength of the friendships the mane 6 share. Sure, the elements were what brought them together, but the friendships they have forged since then are what really matter. And this rather neatly ties in with what I talked about earlier, that no matter what other changes befall them, their friendships will always remain, and not even the power of the Elements of Harmony can compare to that. It is, after all, the main theme of the entire show.

That the power behind the elements is the same as that which keeps the Everfree Forest at bay is a fascinating idea. The Everfree is another one of those aspects of the show that has been there since the very beginning, but has never really been explored in any depth. We finally got to learn a little more about it: it’s not just a creepy, weird place that one doesn’t want to enter, it would also expand and take over MORE of the lands around it if it could. Of course, with the Discord reveal, it’s hard to say exactly how much of this is due to his additions, vs. what the forest would naturally do on its own. When Celestia and Luna find the tree, the former references that even without the Elements, the tree will still have enough power to “control and contain all that grows here”, which no doubt refers to what is known in modern times as the Everfree. So, clearly there was already some crazy plant life going on there, but was it just always a natural part of the world, or was Discord responsible for the whole thing in the first place, and planting those seeds right before he was defeated the first time was simply a continuation/acceleration of that which he had created? Hard to say for sure. In either case, I get the feeling that even without the addition of the seeds, the Everfree would continue to try and expand, and it’s only the active intervention by the Tree of Harmony’s magic that prevents this. Yet its power is apparently finite, and was starting to wane. Thus, the Elements of Harmony that were originally taken from the tree had to be returned, or it would no longer be able to contain the Everfree.

I absolutely loved all the lore bits in this episode, and hope we see more in future episodes!

On top of all of that, we were introduced to a brand-new plot element, and one that seems to be the beginning of an arc no less, in the form of THE BOX. I’m definitely curious to see just what the deal is with that thing. Also, during the memory dive, Twilight noticed that the Tree of Harmony, as it appeared during Discord’s first reign of chaos, seemed to bear her cutie mark. But nothing more is said about that during the episode. Hmmmmmm………

And on that note: as I finish writing this, the next episode is already up, so I’ll be writing up some thoughts on it soon, as well, and will try to do one of these every week when a new episode airs (though they won’t all necessarily be this long).

So, in closing, “Princess Twilight Sparkle” gets an S rank from me. A great way to start the new season, and quite possibly the best of the two-part adventure stories (of which there have now been five in total) yet. If this is indicative of what is to come, season 4 is going to be an absolute blast.

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