The Surprising Cult-Popularity of My Little Pony


What’s up with the sudden love for MLP?

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic picture

A bowl of sugar for the eyes

For those not in the know, MLP stands for My Little Pony. For those really not in the know, the veritable toy line and 80s cartoon was rebooted under the name My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in 2010 by Hasboro’s own network “The Hub,” to, er, essentially create a new toy line. While there’s nothing new here in conception, the result seems to have given birth to a host of cult fans across the internet, including a few fan forums and chat rooms filled with supporters constantly touting the show’s value. And the scary part is, they are full-grown adults.

Let’s slow down a moment. First, it’s important to emphasize the cult status of the show, especially since Internet popularity doesn’t exactly mean much in terms of the average consumer’s notion of popular culture. In addition, “Buy My Product” cartoons always carry a stigma of blatant financial pandering – a marketer’s paradise where kids line up to acquire action figures, dolls, bedspreads, key chains, pogs (pogs are still a thing, right?), and countless other pieces of merchandise – and maybe, just maybe, they’ll watch the cartoon on occasion.

I often take issue with those instantly dismissive of toy-based entertainment. Sure, it’s obvious that the primary drive is skewed towards the “toyetic” aspect of the franchise versus actually creating a quality cartoon; that doesn’t mean that the cast and crew can’t be dedicated enough to try and create a quality show/movie/comic regardless. Something that’s inherently property-based doesn’t automatically mean it’s shitty – see, Clue. And it’s pretty great to draw as much entertainment from My Little Pony as I would from something like Spongebob Squarepants.

It helps that the show is run by Lauren Faust, wife to Powerpuff Girl and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends creator Craig McCracken, whose influences are apparent (the relation between PPG and MLP is so obvious it isn’t worth exploring). Make no mistake, though: it is Faust’s creativity and design that shines through here, to the show’s ultimate benefit. MLP works carefully in defining distinct pony personalities, always an important element in large ensamble TV shows, particularly animated ones (were there any distinctive character in the original MLP or even something like Care Bears?). Its stories are simple but engaging, non-pandering, and disguise its life-lessons well enough in surprising, well-thought out plots and mythologies. It’s a great example of going all out with a simple idea, and reaping the rewards.

Still, it’s popularity is something of a mystery. We’re talking colorful, magical, bright-eyed ponies here, with situations that leave our protagonists afflicted with punned-based diseases, such as – are you ready? – Poison Jokes. (You see, it’s like Poison Oak, but afflicts you with a gag-based symptom.) And while that sounds cringe-inducing, it works very well with the show because of the cast’s commitment to the conflict. There’s no “cutesy-cooties” stories here, and no shoed-in lessons or random-academic facts. Pun aside, Poison Jokes is serious fucking business to the ponies.

Bright, fluid animation with (I assume) Flash and excellent voice talent elevates the show to another level of quality. Solid stories and great characters brings it up another notch (which makes it leagues above the “reptiles talking about nothing” monotony of Dragon Tales – the animated version of Gilmore Girls). However, I’d attribute one extra thing that really makes the show shine beyond more cartoons of a similar nature. You probably didn’t think of this, but this simple feature is what I think allows it to surpass the nature of simple kid’s interest and into genuine, adult-likeability:

Episodes are 22-minutes long.

It always surprises me that more modern-day cartoons don’t adhere to the full 22-minute time frame for an episode, opting to create two 11-minute shorts instead. I’m not referring to the Fox/Comedy Central ‘toons, which are more or less animated sitcoms (although Drawn Together blurred that line), nor to “action” cartoons, like your GI Joes, Transformers, or Marvel/DC animated programs. I refer to what Jeffery Scott in How to Write for Animation calls “squash-and-stretch” cartoons, your mid-day and early evening animation on networks like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network: Angry Beavers, TUFF Puppy, Regular Show, Chowder, and so on. If an episode of shows like these use all 22 minutes for one self-contained story, it’s probably because it’s a special of some sort. Otherwise, you’re probably getting two shorts instead of one.

Granted, I can understand why it is done. Executives fear alienating the young audience by splitting a show into two parts through commercials. Also, it’s slightly easier to produce two shorts with a team of people (regulating directors and animators focusing on their proper specialties) than it is to collaborate an entire team to one full episode. Still, in the age of DVR and Youtube, and in a time when streamlining the workload is much cheaper and easier, squash-and-stretch cartoons ought to utilize their entire timeslot to the fullest.

Quite frankly, 22-minute episodes tend to be better than the 11-minute ones. The pacing is spread out better and jokes and movements aren’t as crammed together. We can learn about the characters more, get a sense of their personalities and their behaviors, as well as their interactions with each other. Think about it this way: squash-and-stretch cartoons use the 22-minute format during specials mainly to reveal “secrets” or “surprises” about the characters or their world – you know, that thing called “development”. If a squash-and-stretch cartoons worked off the 22-minute template every time, they could “develop” the characters and the world every time. A no-brainer.

The 2 x 11-minute template only leaves room for the story, under the belief that there isn’t a strong need to develop much else to the show besides the plot. With 22-minutes, characters can shine, the plot can create larger stakes, and the limits of the confined setting can be explored to its fullest potential (provided there isn’t any pointless padding). I’m personally not a huge Invader Zim fan, but I’ll admit that loved the pilot and it’s mid-season, planet-riding episode, both of which were 22 minutes. Phineas and Ferb mixes 1 x 22-minutes with 2 x 11-minutes episodes quite frequently, and while both formats are fun, the 1 x 22 have more going for it in terms of character, interactions, and aesthetics. There’s more energy. There’s more investment. There’s more commitment. And this is what I believe makes the My Little Pony show such a treat. Heck, it’s why Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues fairly entertaining to adults, too. It commits us to the entire episode of the show.

While I’ll avoid an entire episode analysis of what works here, a cursory glance at the first five minutes reveals quite a bit. In about thirty seconds, we learn about the two main characters, and a third who apparently controls the clouds. Right after – we hit the ground running with a conflict: all the ponies are in hiding. The plot begins quickly, a la a 11-minute cartoon. But the beats switches quickly to a vaguely sitcomy-type development. In the darkness of the house, we learn point-blank how each pony works and thinks; different voices, actions, behaviors and reactions to this “zebra” illicit similar fears but different responses to that fear. We learn (quite comically, but paramount to in-world development) that they exist in a realm that finds the laws of nature strange, crude, and barbarically horrific. And instead of moving towards the episode climax, the stakes are ratcheted up even higher when the younger pony strikes out on her own to confront this strange striped creature. In essence, we have all the quick-to-the-punch elements of typical 11-minute cartoon, the character-interplay and pacing of a sitcom, and the diegetic development and rising conflict notorious to action cartoons. People may say the writing is good, but it’s because of that 22-minute time frame that the writing can be particularly stellar in conception and execution (bare in mind, the plots are still inherently simplistic, but they go the extra mile to make them appealing).

I’m not rushing to catch every episode, but of the three I have seen, I found myself endeared to the tale being told, mainly because very little of the running time is wasted. Ratcheting up the conflict, keeping the characters distinct and unique (and giving everyone a fair amount of screen time – no one seems wasted), and maintaining those cartoon roots leaves My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic an entertaining, if not too deep, piece of television delight. For comparison, this episode is more sitcomy in plot (a creative take on the other friend replacing you plot-trope), while this one is a more basic, cartoony story (given a harrowing if silly climax). The mixture of elements would be a mess in short form, but 22-minutes is perfect; or should I say, 22-minutes is magic.

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  1. #1 by Nessie on February 7, 2011 - 2:23 pm

    Bravo and well said! I should add that one of the major and oft-sited reasons why the show is so well-loved is because most viewers come into it expecting absolutely nothing and end up watching a cartoon for girls that actually gives a sh*t about quality.

    “Friendship is Magic” is innocent without being silly, and cute without being sickening. Best of all, it avoids the “Shrek” disease that makes so many modern animated series a slog (“Meh, let’s just put more fart jokes and movie quotes in.”) And the animation is gorgeous. It is indeed done with Flash and the quality is especially noticeable because my DVR usually snags a tiny bit of the eye-searing new CGI “Strawberry Shortcake” series that has the bad luck to precede it.

    However, the thing that gets me is this: It’s okay to admit your love for “Clone Wars” or “Adventure Time” or whatever the current “Transformers” series is (they are all good series but I’m getting to a point here). Mention that you happen to like “My Little Pony” and oh, the haters shall descend upon thee. Howdy, there, double standard!

  2. #2 by frank on April 11, 2011 - 11:58 am

    mlp:fim is really an American ingenious and clever answer to Japanese K-on!(I assume the author know a bit about this)

    i found many similarities between them:strong characterization,emphasis on friendship and how to live the teen life “the right way”,etc.maybe K-on! has a more continuous plot but that doesn’t mean it trump mlp for this.

  3. #3 by Joe on April 17, 2011 - 9:42 pm

    I don’t get where you say this is toy-based entertainment. That brings up memories of horrible cartoons of my childhood where it was obvious even to an 8 year old that what was on screen was just an avenue to deploy a toy gimmick — Centurions, Inhumanoids, Visionaries — all awful.

    But in MLP:FiM, the ponies don’t live in play sets. There are no character accessories. And the characters themselves are taken right out of Lauren Faust’s deviantART concept art (with just some coloring and name changes to align her sketches of G1 ponies with G3 characters because Hasbro had lost the rights to much of G1) Those sketches pre-date her getting signed to do the show.
    The characters are fluid with many details, angles, and compound curves, and they each have a unique hairstyle — not at all like the bulbous predecessors that look designed to be molded out of soft plastic.

    Obviously Hasbro means to sell toys, but I see no evidence that toy design is driving anything in the cartoon.
    There doesn’t seem to be any motive here but Lauren Faust’s stated goal: To make a show that both children and their parents could enjoy. I’d say she succeeded in that.

  4. #4 by kjohnson1585 on April 17, 2011 - 11:33 pm

    Joe – hey, thanks for replying to the post!

    I do think it is important to note the bottom line is that My Little Pony was a toy before anything else. When I say “toy-based,” I mean it is based on a concept that is primarily, from the late 70s to 80s, a toyline created by Hasboro.

    That being said, as I alluded to in the post, it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality that Faust has brought to the reboot. Just because something is based on a toy doesn’t mean it can’t be very well done, similar to the good Sonic the Hedgehog in the 90s. I certainly hope the tone of my post was a lot more glowing towards MLP than assuming I dismissed it as toy-based. Ultimately, that is irrelevant; Faust and her team, as you noted, brought a style, tone, attitude, and tale (both in design and in the narrative) that is much more exciting and entertaining than those gimmicks in the 80s. [And hey! I was a fan of the Centurions! Kinda.]

    While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I am a brony, I do definitely enjoy watching these episodes. It actually gives me hope that future creators can make entertaining, well-thought out shows, whether based on a product or not.

  5. #5 by Anon on May 1, 2011 - 12:50 am

    Nice review overall, but it bothers me how you described Lauren Faust. You basically just said that she is helpful because she transfers the greatness of her husband to MLP. You know she co-created those shows with him right? Much of the creativity you see in them must be her doing independently of her husband. Though I am sure they have influenced each other, I have no doubt that MLP:FiM is mainly the product of her own style and creativity.

  6. #6 by Admin on May 1, 2011 - 1:40 am

    Anon – thanks for the reply!

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply McCracken is secretly running the show here. I amended the paragraph to clarify that. Although: “Much of the creativity you see in them must be her doing independently of her husband.” I don’t know about “independently,” but certainly majorly her style. And McCraken is credited as the creator of PPG and Foster’s; while no doubt Faust had quite a bit of say in those show’s development, I can’t credit her as a co-creator until CN and IMDB does.

    But yes, Faust rules.

  7. #7 by Tina on May 25, 2011 - 1:46 pm

    And Now MLP is in the schools.
    This is Awesome… I hope you put it on your site.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muVfidujxRg

  8. #8 by Carlos on May 26, 2011 - 1:56 pm

    My little girl is CRAZY about this show! Any word on dvds this show for sale? Or even just released at all???? I’m going crazy trying to find dvd’s!!

  9. #9 by Anon on June 1, 2011 - 9:58 pm

    @Admin: Fair enough! Thank you for the clarification. :)

  10. #10 by Nulono on June 14, 2011 - 7:30 pm

    I guess you could say it has… *puts on sunglasses* a colt following.

    YYYEEEAAAHHHHHH!!!

  11. #11 by Mauro on July 12, 2011 - 6:09 am

    @Carlos WHAT!! A girl actually likes this show?? I though it was for men!

  12. #12 by Rose on July 31, 2011 - 9:07 pm

    @Mauro

    Girls can watch it too, you know. Even the older ones (like moi for example)

    and btw, Fluttershy rules.

  13. #13 by Ciphered on August 16, 2011 - 10:57 am

    in before “all bronies are pedophile gayfegs”

    but seriously, the show’s great, and people need to stop sexualizing and aging TV shows.

  14. #14 by Ap on August 28, 2011 - 9:31 pm

    One of the best shows I have seen in 4 YEARS! Seen every episode and loved every episode. Faust has done great work with the PPG, Fosters, and now with MLP. I was surprised to see Chris Savino, Rob Renzetti, and Sarah Wall in the opening credits of MLP, these folk have also done great work on other shows preciding to MLP as well, talk about an excellent animation team. Hopefully this will also be an inspiration to new animators that even though this show is computer generated (aka Flash animated) you can still make great animated shows if they take the time to make a good shows and not just slap it on a network and expect instant success. Let’s hope that MLP will be released either on DVD or on blu-ray. Would love to enjoy this show for years to come.

  15. #15 by katherina on October 8, 2011 - 2:10 pm

    i ljgfn tjytju jgfig itjy

  16. #16 by katherina on October 8, 2011 - 2:12 pm

    i like my little pony is magical frendship…………………………………..

  17. #17 by james on January 17, 2012 - 8:32 pm

    …. i still dont understand the appeal

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