“Finally something else we can obsess over!”
“My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” is now officially a cultural phenomenon. Whether you enjoy the show or not (I personally dig the hell out of it), it’s here to stay. So with the show becoming such a big hit, the lead-up to season three was huge. It was set up through tweets, pictures, and trailers to be the biggest season yet. But is the season opener, the two part episode “The Crystal Empire,” as good as its marketing? Well overall I would say that the episode is pretty awesome, albeit the series falls back on a bad habit, making the new antagonist feel underwhelming.
The story goes that out of nowhere a magical empire known as the Crystal Empire randomly appears back in the arctic north. So Celestia sends Twilight and her friends to the empire to find a way to protect it from the evil King Sombra. Twilight and her friends set up an ancient Crystal Empire tradition, the Crystal Fair, as a way of distracting the populace while Twilight goes out to find an artifact called the Crystal Heart, which can defeat Sombra. The story is actually pretty interesting and features several cool set pieces, such as a door that leads to your worst fears, or what I like to call the Cadence Cannon. The episodes were written by Meagan McCarthy, one of the best writers of ‘epic’ episodes for the team. The comparisons to the season two closer, “A Canterlot Wedding,” are inevitable so I’ll make them now. Yes, “The Crystal Empire” is a million times better than “A Canterlot Wedding.” The problem with “A Canterlot Wedding” was its hole-ridden plot. The plot was only able to move forward thanks to characters acting stupid, something which “The Crystal Empire” remedies. Characters act in character, another problem from the “Wedding,” and they actually do smart things. Tension is generated through the villain actually being threatening enough to challenge our heroes at their best, not because he caught them on a bad day.
The characters are another serious point in the episode’s favor. We get to see plenty of interaction between the ponies and plenty of great character moments and jokes. Most important is the reappearance of the new members of the cast from “A Canterlot Wedding,” Shining Armor and Princess Cadance. A lot of bronies, the male MLP demographic of which I am a member, criticized Cadance as simply being there to promote a new toy, and Shining of being pulled out of the writer’s ass. Thankfully it seems like these problems are being addressed. We get a predictable, but still pretty ok, backstory for Cadance. And we get some more of Shining interacting with the other characters, which makes him feel a lot less useless. The primary focus of the episode is Twilight, who does undergo a fairly significant arc that seems to be setting up something bigger. Throughout the episode Twilight has to learn things about self-sacrifice and trust, things which she should’ve been learning in the last episode, instead of the lesson about trusting your instincts. The new characters, the crystal ponies, come across rather bland. I would like to see more of the Crystal Empire itself in future episodes, if only to actually get a sense of how this empire is supposed to work normally.
One of the big buzzes about the preview footage, particularly the Comic-Con debut of the “Failure” song, was the animation. And trust me, it doesn’t disappoint. The animation is stellar from start to finish. The design of the empire is striking and memorable. The animation is basically the entire reason why the audience has any fear of King Sombra. And the incredibly subtle character touches allow for fantastic visual storytelling. The music is… ok. This is one of those categories that you expect to be ravaged by the inevitable comparison to the previous episodes. “A Canterlot Wedding,” for all of its many faults in story and pacing, had a fantastic score. All three songs, “BBBFF,” “This Day,” and “Love is in Bloom,” were all endlessly replayable hits. The songs in this episode are alright, certainly not bad, but just not memorable in any way. “The Failure Song,” “Crystal Fair,” and “The Failure Reprise” are pretty good, particularly the reprise, but not fantastic. It’s is a shame since having Sombra sing would have probably been more interesting.
We now must come of course to one of major problems with the episode; King Sombra. Now the awesome thing about “Friendship is Magic” is that the villains are actually better than a lot of modern shows aimed at boys. Discord is an awesome fan favorite, Queen Chrysalis is amazing, Nightmare Moon managed to single handedly disarm the entire male populace and make them watch a girl’s cartoon. It’s for these reasons that Sombra is a “meh” villain. He’s not bad; he’s intimidating and impressive looking and there’s a great moment when his horn gets cut off. But he isn’t memorable or interesting. He has maybe five lines within a forty-five minute season opener. FIVE LINES. And all of them are mumbled and barely audible because he has this weird Bane (of “Dark Knight Rises” fame) voice, and the audio adds a hiss to all of his lines. Not that you’d want to understand him, even if you could. All he ever says are things to the effect of “Crystal ponies” or “Crystal Heart” or “Argh” or “Rawr” or something. Basically everything that we know about him is through exposition or through visuals. He’s the first unbelievably banal major villain in the show. But there was one other thing that kind of irked me about the episode: what it was insinuating. The ending to the episode mentions something about “Twilight will discover her destiny” or something and this is followed by Luna pulling out some magical book thing with a picture of stars on it. Now obviously I’m not saying that the show can’t have an overarching storyline; hell that’s what I liked about the first season, the sense that it was all building to the end episode. But it seems like it’s going too epic too quick. I mean the overall story of the first season was a gala, not a major character discovering their destiny or something. I could be getting all in a tizzy over nothing but it just bugged me.
So overall what did I think of “The Crystal Empire?” I thought it was definitely a fantastic episode. The story was engaging and exciting, the characters were funny and well-written, the animation was top-notch. In truth, it’s probably one of my favorite episodes (not my actual favorite which is “Ponyville Confidential”). But niggling issues prevent it from being as good as it should be. King Sombra is a garbage villain. The music was okay but a lot of it felt like a cheap way to interest the audience before they actually saw the episode, rather than being a seamless part to the episode. Overall though, it was exciting and fun. This is shaping up to be a great season, especially the next episode, which will feature Pinkie Pie cloning herself… Ponyville is doomed, isn’t it?