Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reviewing Is Magic: Episode 9

I grew up in a time period when television loved to do "very special episodes" about important topics.  There was the Home Improvement episode where Jonathan Taylor Thomas' character might have had cancer.  We saw Punky Brewster deal with cocaine, Good Times learned what VD was from, of all sources, a hobo Jay Leno, Family Ties had Tom Hanks threatening Michael J. Fox during a discussion about alcoholism.

Some important messages were extremely impacting.  I vividly recall the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episodes where Carlton mistakenly took some pills from Will's locker that Will took from someone else, as well as the episode where Carlton started packing heat.  The death of Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street is probably one of the most self-awakening episodes of television from when I was young, and of course many cartoons had important messages at the end, like G.I. Joe.

Some programs, of course, handled things a bit...strangely.  For instance, there was the Saved By The Bell episode where Jesse was addicted to caffeine pills.  Sonic the Hedgehog tried to teach us, with the exact same tone of voice, that climbing in a clothes dryer is just as "uncool" as letting an adult sexually harass you.

So yeah, difficult topics are rough to portray in a way that gets the message through clearly to children, without either diminishing its importance or making it come across as if you're lecturing your audience, especially if you're a cartoon.

So with that in mind, let's look at My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic's attempt to teach us that racism is bad!

...I wonder if I have any of that lovely drink left after I reviewed the Japanese Ninja Turtles cartoon.

Our episode begins on Twilight Sparkle and Spike heading into town and making chit-chat about what a gorgeous day it is, as well as making sure to point out that Rainbow Dash never wakes up on time to clear the sky.  You'd think that'd be a pretty big deal on whatever kind of job review she gets, but hey, I don't run the cloud business.

Back on topic, Twilight and Spike arrive to find that everybody in town is gone, and locates her friends hiding in Pinkie Pie's place from someone who is pawing (hooving?) the ground outside.

Apple Bloom (Applejack's younger sister, we'll talk about her more in another episode) says the stranger's name is "Zecora," which causes her sister to state "we never say that name."  The other ponies explain that Zecora is, besides "she who shall not be named," a mysterious, sinister figure who looks at people evilly and has horrible taste in stripes (the latter coming from Rarity, of course).

That's right, Zecora's a zebra.  ...and yes, I did realize right from the start that having everybody in the town be nervous and suspicious of a character whose species only comes from Africa is a bit "on the nose" for such a topic, perhaps I just read too much into things.  I mean, it's not like she does some bizarre stuff with potions or keeps around tribal masks anywhere, right?

...riiiiiiight.  Well, we'll get to that later.

So, once Twilight explains what a zebra is and that they're a) born with stripes, b) from far away, and c) not ponies (...I'm not touching that), the others explain that they're still justified in being afraid of her because she actually lives in the forest.

I believe, in an earlier episode, I discussed why I love the Everfree Forest so much, and the ponies freely break it down for Twilight like she been there before to help save every pony in existence.

"The Everfree Forest just ain't natural!  Plants grow..."

"Animals care for themselves..."

"And the clouds move all on their own."

Obviously, it's worth treating this like it's a disaster of biblical proportions.

So Twilight and Apple Bloom try to point out that Zecora, for all of her sinisterness, hasn't actually done anything to anybody, and if any pony was actually brave enough to talk to her, they'd probably find out what she was up to.  This being a show that spotlights a younger character, Apple Bloom immediately sneaks out to follow Zecora and find out what's so mysterious about her.

The other ponies catch up with Apple Bloom and Zecora in the woods, and we get to hear Zecora speak for the first time...and it turns out she only speaks in rhyme.  This just gets better and better.  Zecora delivers a warning to the ponies about the blue flowers the gang in standing in, and the ponies pretty much retaliate by threatening keep her "creepy mumbo jumbo" to herself.

Twilight, again being the voice of reason, explains that even in a world with magic, curses are just "smoke and mirrors" and aren't real, but nobody seems to believe her.  Cut to the next day...and it seems curses are sweeping through our cast.

Twilight's horn and Pinkie's tongue are rather obvious, as are the fact that Rainbow Dash can only fly while upside down and keeps crashing into things, and Rarity looks like a pony version of a komondor,  Applejack is shrunk down to pocket size, and Fluttershy...well, I fell out of my chair when they showed what her curse was.

Twilight insists she can find a cure, but she's too late as mob mentality starts to settle in, with the ponies wanting to find Zecora and "force" her to break it.   This leads to Apple Bloom deciding that since this was obviously her fault, it's up to her to fix it, and she sneaks off again...with one pint-sized passenger hiding in her tail...but it's not long once she's inside the woods that Applejack insists she goes back home...and promptly gets left alone on a tree branch in the deadliest woods ever to fend for herself.  Way to go, Apple Bloom.

So the other ponies race to Zecora's (with Rainbow Dash meeting up with Applejack in what's probably well into the double digits with crashing headfirst into solid objects), and catch up at Zecora's place where the zebra is hard at work brewing up a mixture of some kind in a pot and chanting over it.

I didn't mention before that Pinkie Pie wrote a song about Zecora, but I'll just put this here if you want to hear it sung like Barry White.

I think I just found my next ringtone.

So, with the evidence presented to her, Twilight comes to the clear conclusion that Zecora is evil an- wait, what?  ...okay, we can roll with this.  The ponies burst in and start wrecking up Zecora's place, accusing her of perpetrating crimes against ponykind.  Zecora with a great "what the f@%$ is wrong with you?" Twilight and Applejack actually try to beat Zecora up to find Apple Bloom...when Apple Bloom walks in, and upon hearing the accusations that Zecora was going to eat her, both child and zebra have a good laugh.

So it turns out those blue flowers everybody was standing in is called "poison joke," which is like "poison oak" except it's a practical joker and has control over making ponies grow or shrink, I guess.  That's not the strangest thing that's in those woods, trust me.

So Zecora shows that she was just trying to whip up a batch of cure for the ponies, the ponies learn (literally and figuratively) not to judge a book by its cover, and they all lead Zecora into town to teach the rest of Ponyville that "racism = bad."

The Good:

I keep saying I'll discuss it later, and trust me, it'll happen (in three episodes), but Apple Bloom is a good addition to the cast as a secondary character.  I think her design, with short stubby legs that have to move quickly to let her keep up with the adults, is great, and she doesn't come off anything like just a smaller version of an adult or, say, Scrappy-Doo.

Getting another look at the woods is always a blast, and at this point it kept me wondering how the ponies keep the woods from spreading further into their territory.  Again, it's probably over-thinking it, but if the universe these characters live in are going to provide the info, they better get used to me analyzing it.

And Fluttershy's "curse voice" had me in hysterics every time she spoke, so well played, ponies.

The Bad:

So, uh, yeah.  Racism.  Okay, so while this wasn't as bad as "Sonic Says," it did feel a little heavy at times.  Having Zecora be a zebra, have masks, brew potions, and speak in chants and rhymes was a bit much, when they could do as much of a story with a little less.  I like the character as she is, but perhaps a few more details about her could be shared as a lesson later on about her home culture, instead of everything being a sign that she was an evil hexist (hexer? hexette?).

The voices of the other ponies in Ponyville always bother me a little, but that might be because they're supposed to just be additional voices, and are probably also voiced by the cast who voice the main characters.


So, it's not a bad "special episode," but it does manage to make it feel less like one since there's no overly dramatic violin music that the show has never aired before to force you to realize it's an important lesson.  The fact that a book that Twilight dismisses comes into play does help soften the lesson from being preachy and overbearing, letting the kids connect the dots from a small lesson to a big one.

And, I mean, teaching kids that, in general, "just because someone's different doesn't make them bad" is an important lesson to learn at a young age.  I mean, it's not like they're discussing, say, culture clash between settlers and Native Americans, with buffalo representing the native tribes a- oh, just show the picture already. going to be a long episode.

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