My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a great cartoon. More fascinating, though, is the fan community that has erupted around it. Pretty much everyone is scratching their heads, trying to figure out how a show about selling plastic ponies (with luxurious hair and accessories) ended up having such broad appeal.
But I think it’s easy to explain. In fact, I bet I can explain it in 7.99 seconds:
That’s a short clip I cropped out of a recent episode. Due to the conversion of .avi to .gif being an inexact science, it doesn’t add up to exactly 7.99 seconds, but you get the idea. What’s happening here is, a couple characters have just fallen off a mountain off in the distance. This prompts the two winged ponies to dash off to their rescue. This is pretty standard action/cartoon stuff; we have seen this scene thirty five thousand times.
What’s different about this scene, though, is how much characterization has been stuffed into it. Someone who has never seen the cartoon before can infer more about the personalities of these two ponies in under eight seconds than most cartoon characters are afforded in entire episodes. They’ll be able to tell right away that the blue one is fast and aggressive, while the yellow one is delicate and unsure. They could tell you which of the two is more likely to be a tomboy, which one is more competitive, which one more apologetic. Just through body language and facial expressions, everything that defines these two characters is on stark, vivid display.
More than that, though, the characters are communicating with each other. The blue pony initiates the rescue, grabs the reluctant yellow one from offscreen and snatches up a discarded cape to catch her friends in. Once in the air it dawns on the both of them that the yellow one is having trouble keeping up. But her friends are still in danger, so she puts a little extra oomph into it in her sheepish, demure manner. Which just seems to annoy the blue one, who is flying in a more aerodynamic Superman pose.
“Come on, we have to speed up!”
“Sorry, I’ll try!”
A new viewer, someone just flipping through channels, or peeking in from another room to see what their kid is watching, can get all that from eight seconds of animation, without a single line of dialogue.
Fans of the show (kids and bronies alike) will catch all that too, of course — but from their point of view, the payoff is having the characterization reinforced. Neither Blue nor Yellow are focal characters in this episode; this is pretty much their only scene. Nonetheless, the writers and animators made sure not a single second goes to waste. Nothing is phoned in, nothing is stretched, and nothing is thrown together.
Every eight-second clip of every episode is like this. Every scene. The characters ooze personality every single moment they’re onscreen. When this much care goes into developing a cast of characters, viewers are going to respond, even if those viewers are far outside of your target demographic. MLP certainly isn’t the first cartoon to demonstrate this.
I think it’s a similar dynamic that got regular people interested in comic book characters once movie studios started filing away their more embarrassing aspects. Or which brought RPGs into the mainstream once someone thought to make them less about juggling numbers and more about cinematics. Or a wily, upstart video game console selling millions of units simply by designing a controller around hand movements rather than a dozen tiny buttons.
Those things were all carefully calculated marketing gimmicks, of course. They were the result of someone saying, “Hey, we can sell this to people who wouldn’t have liked it last year.” MLP just happened to do it accidentally.
There are other reasons to like the show, but I think this is the main thing. People don’t realize that dudes my age are more predisposed to watching and enjoying cartoons than they were a generation ago. 24-hour cartoon channels, the steady and unceasing influx of anime, better animation techniques resulting in nicer-looking shows… there are lots of reasons. It makes sense that when people get together and make a quality cartoon, dudes are going to watch it.
So the brony explosion doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. I will cheerfully watch this show as long as they can keep up this level of care and attention, and as long as they keep these gloriously cheesy showtunes coming. Cheesy showtunes are always a plus.