The great exposition of “Friendship is Magic, Part 1”, and why “Equestria Girls” still struggles

As divisive as Equestria Girls is, most people agree that the series has improved over time.  And while I believe that’s true, even the otherwise-excellent Rainbow Rocks and Friendship Games have moments that make me cringe:

PrincipalCinch

Principal Cinch: I know I’m asking you to beat a team that isn’t playing fair, but Canterlot High must be made to understand that even with magic at their disposal, beating Crystal Prep is simply not an option.

This is one of those moments when I have to fight really hard to suspend my disbelief.  My better sense is asking all kinds of questions:

  • Why are Principal Cinch and the Crystal Prep students so willing to accept the existence of magic?
  • Having accepted it, why aren’t they documenting evidence of this?
  • Why is no one calling the cops or otherwise freaking out?

In a situation like this, a good audience willingly suspends their disbelief to make the story work.  But if the audience has to do that, it means the writer has erred.  And if we take a close look at how they’ve erred, we can learn something valuable about storytelling.

So, what’s gone wrong here?  Well, in general terms, none of the characters are acting in ways that are believable for the real world.

Of course, there’s a problem with that statament: Equestria Girls is clearly not set in the real world — for starters, people in the real world don’t have blue, pink or purple skin (barring hypothermia, sunburn, or asphyxiation).  By definition, no work of fiction is set in the real world.  When we say a work of fiction is set in “the real world”, we implicitly mean “a world identical to our own, unless otherwise specified.”

Indeed, Equestria Girls never even claims to take place on Earth — so far as I can recall, every time the EqG universe is referred to by name, it’s simply called “The Human World”.  So perhaps our expectations of the real world don’t apply here.  Perhaps it’s better to think of the Equestria Girls world as similar to ours on the surface, but different in several important ways.  For example, perhaps magic in the Humanverse is rare, but not unheard-of.

But if that’s what the series was going for, it didn’t really work, for 2 reasons:  1) It never makes it clear that we should discard our expectations of the real world, and 2) it gives no indication of what should replace those expectations.  In other words, Equestria Girls has poor exposition.

How could the series do those things?  Oddly enough, the pilot of Friendship is Magic provides a good example.

True, “Friendship is Magic, Part 1” doesn’t take place in the real world (or anything resembling it).  But it’s a useful counterpoint to illustrate why Equestria Girls struggles.  Unlike Equestria Girls, FiM effectively sets its audience’s expectations by teaching us about its world.

To better illustrate this point, let’s think back to Equestria Girls 1.  Specifically, let’s compare the scene directly after Sunset Shimmer’s defeat with the analogous scene from the pilot (after the Mane Six defeat Nightmare Moon).

Side-by-side

Much like Principal Cinch’s scene above, the scene after Sunset’s defeat strained my suspension of disbelief (in fact, it outright broke it).  None of the Humanverse characters’ actions made any sense.  They’ve just been confronted with an overt and massive display of something that, by their experience, should not exist (magic).  They should be freaking out.

Okay, it’s My Little Pony.  I don’t expect bystanders to be rolling for SAN loss — that would be thematically inappropriate (and therefore bad writing).  But they shouldn’t go back to partying as though nothing weirder than a fist-fight has happened.  Based upon what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone in this assessment.

So, while watching Equestria Girls, may of us were thinking “why is no one calling the cops?” (or something similar).  Why then, in the equivalent scene from the pilot, did no one ask “why is no one calling the guards?”

Perhaps it never even occurred to you to ask that question.  But now that you’re considering it, you can probably name several very good reasons no one is calling the guards.

  • Calling the guards would be redundant — Celestia is here, and she’s the highest authority in the land.  Both politically and magically, she’s far more powerful than the guards.  Sunbutt’s got this under control.
  • While the Rainbow Beam they’ve just seen is intense, the characters probably don’t think it’s that weird — magic is common in Equestria.
  • They don’t have a means of calling the guards — long-distance communication in Equestria is limited (despite the prevalence of magic).
  • It will take quite awhile for the guards to arrive — transportation in Equestria is much slower than in our world.
  • Even if the guards managed to get to the Everfree Forest, it would take them some time to get through the forest to the castle.

All of those are good points.  But here’s my question: how did you know all those things?

You might say “because I’m a big enough fan that I’m reading this blog”, but I don’t think that’s the reason.  I submit that you knew all that by the first time you finished viewing the pilot.  And you knew it because unlike Equestria Girls, “Friendship is Magic, Part 1” has great exposition.

Let’s just take 2 related facts from the list above:

  • Magic is fairly common in Equestria
  • Long-distance communication and long-distance travel take a long time in Equestria.

Bear in mind; these statements are somewhat contradictory.  If magic is indeed commonplace in Equestria, we might expect it to fill a role similar to our global communications network.  But it doesn’t, and by the end of the pilot, we know that.  How?

Let’s start with the second scene in the pilot, with Twilight searching for information on the Elements of Harmony.

Pictured: the elusive and majestic bookhorse in its natural habitat. This particular specimen is in the "pre-Magical Mystery Cure" stage of development.

Pictured: the elusive and majestic bookhorse in its natural habitat. This particular specimen is in the “pre-Magical Mystery Cure” stage of development.

This scene first suggests that magic in Equestria is commonplace — we see Twilight using it for something as mundane as reaching a high shelf.

The “tower scene” also establishes that while instantaneous communication is possible, it’s restricted to writing — in this world, crystal balls do not work like Skype, nor does anything else.  If such things did exist, Twilight would be using them.  And if Twilight doesn’t have such things, then likely no one does.  Furthermore, such magical communication clearly requires Spike to function.  This will be relevant later.

The next PulledbyGuardsshot is Twilight being pulled through the sky by two armored ponies.  This scene tells us a lot about Equestria, but the most relevant point is what it tells us about fast transportation; ponies don’t have it.  Twilight clearly ranks fairly high on the social hierarchy, so we’d expect her to have access to the most convenient means of transport to Ponyville.  Apparently, that means of transport is…other ponies.

ReinEveryoneWalksforcing this idea, Twilight and Spike walk to Sweet Apple Acres (and all their other destinations).  We also see Ponies walking throughout Ponyville — but we see no faster means of transportation.  This solidifies the idea that walking (or flying) is the fastest common means of travel.  Faster methods might exist (and we learn later that they do — ponies have trains), but they’re probably rare and restricted.

Twilight’s appearance at each location is clearly the first time she’s met the other member of the Mane Six.  There’s no mention of “calling ahead”, or “speaking earlier”.  Once again, this suggests that instantaneous communication is rare.  However Spike’s fax machine ability works, it isn’t universal — he can’t use it to communicate with anyone but Celestia (or at least, he can’t use it to communicate with most ponies).

A few scenes later, we meet Rainbow Dash, and learn that she’s responsible for managing the weather.  Neither Twilight nor Spike is at all surprised by the idea of “managing the weather” — they seem to find it as thoroughly commonplace as Applejack growing food.  Once again, “magic is normal in Equestria”.

RarityBows“Magic is commonplace” is further solidified when we see that Rarity, like Twilight, uses magic for a rather mundane activity — comparing bows.  Once again, Twilight and Spike’s lack of reaction tells us a lot here — Rarity’s use of magic doesn’t even warrant mention.  It seems that Twilight’s easy use of magic is not one of her outstanding qualities — she might be more magically skilled than most unicorns, but it seems that all unicorns use magic as easily as breathing.

After Twilight’s escape from the mad fashionista, we go on to meet Fluttershy, who promptly flips her thoroughly adorable shit upon seeing Spike.

Thus was shyabetes unleashed upon the world.

Thus was shyabetes unleashed upon the world.

“A baby dragon!”

This conversation tells us a number of things:

1) Spike is, in fact, a dragon.  Previously, we could easily have inferred this from his appearance and abilities, but here we get explicit confirmation.

2) Dragons are rare.  Very rare.  We know this because Fluttershy — who was just established as an animal enthusiast — has never seen one before; indeed, she wasn’t even aware that dragons could talk (which seems like pretty important information).  This suggests that dragons are so rare that most ponies have never seen one.

And since Spike is the only method we’ve seen of fast communication, this suggests that fast communication is similarly rare.  Once again, the episode teaches us “instantaneous communication is limited”.

Twilight clumsily excuses herself, but manages to ditch Fluttershy with a minimum of social disturbance.  Then we get a very subtle piece of exposition:

Twilight: Where’s the light switch?

LightSwitch2

Twilight Sparkle derping before it was cool (precisely 48 seconds before it was cool, in fact).

 

Combined with the previous scenes, this tells us something very important: “Equestria’s technology level does not correspond to any time period of our own world.”  Ponies apparently have electricity (or something functionally identical), and yet we’ve seen that most of the houses have thatched roofs.  This setting will be schizo-tech.  Our expectations of technology level won’t necessarily apply.

Which means, for example, that while ponies might have trains, they don’t necessarily have telegraphs.  Once again, “fast communication doesn’t exist.”

So, throughout the pilot, we’ve had signals that teach us that 1) magic is commonplace, but 2) fast-communication/fast-travel is rare.

And those are just two of the many things FiM teaches us about its setting in the first episode.  Here’s a partial list:

  • Ponies have a fairly advanced civilization.
  • Dragons exist, are sentient, and are (at least sometimes) integrated into pony society.  They’re very rare, however.
  • Most (perhaps all) animals are sentient, though most of them can’t speak.
  • The Princess is the ruling monarch (remember, this would be counter-intuitive for most viewers).
  • Male ponies exist, though they seem to be rare (this ceased to be the case in later episodes).
  • Gender roles exist in Equestria, and they’re at least somewhat similar to our own.
  • Despite this, Equestria is gender-egalitarian (or at worst, it might be slightly matriarchal).
  • The main characters are (young) adults.
  • Family is indicated based upon theme naming, rather than surnames (we later learn that this is only sometimes true).
  • Romance, attraction, and (to some extent) sexuality exist.
  • Despite being peaceful, ponies at least understand the idea of armed conflict and law enforcement.
  • Nature and the weather are actively managed.

I’m sure I’ve missed several, but I think you get the point.

As a result, we don’t wonder where the authorities are after Luna’s purification, because the show has primed us to understand that a) the highest authority (Celestia) is here, b) the guards can’t be contacted for awhile, and c) while the Orbital Friendship Cannon might be alarming, it’s not outside of the characters’ experience.  Given what we know of the world they live in, the characters’ reactions are reasonable.

Equestria Girls, by contrast, gives us very few such signals about its world.  YoutubeAnd the few signals we are given about The Human World act to solidify the first impression we get when Twilight comes through the portal; this world is identical to our own in most respects.  Youtube exists, smartphones exist, high school exists, etc.   As a result, we expect the inhabitants to react to the presence of the rampaging demon as we might react; by shitting our pants, running, and calling 911, in that order.  Instead, they just seem relieved that the danger has passed.Smartphones

To put that in more general terms; all the characters are reacting to the situation in a way that makes no sense to the audience.  Sometimes that can work.  Sometimes that can make the story more effective.  But the climax of the tale is not one of those times.  Placed here, such a disconnect between audience and character will yank the audience out of the narrative.

You need to tell your audience how your world works, and what your characters expect.  Doing that well can be the difference between…well, between Friendship is Magic, Part 1 and Equestria Girls.

But there’s another question that should be asked here.  We’ve seen that “Friendship is Magic, Part 1” teaches us a ton about the world of Equestria.

So why didn’t it feel like it?  Why did it feel like we were being entertained, rather than lectured?

I’ll discuss that next time.


Want to know when I’ve thought of something new and interesting about the narrative techniques of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic?  Yeah, neither would I, probably.  But just in case, you can suscribe via email at the top of the page (right side), follow The Pony’s Litterbox on Tumblr, or follow me on Twitter.

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5 Responses to The great exposition of “Friendship is Magic, Part 1”, and why “Equestria Girls” still struggles

  1. notknownlight says:

    so far as I can recall, every time the EqG universe is referred to by name, it’s simply called “The Human World”.

    Actually, it’s not even that much. At no point are the multicolored bipedal creatures referred to as “humans”. The Humanverse is just called an “alternate world”.

    I’m really glad your next post will be about the awesome, natural exposition weaved through nearly every minute of the first episode. That’s something I’ve always noticed and appreciated and I wish the episode got more credit for it.

  2. cosmicunicorn says:

    If I saw crazy magical demons at my high school and other magic, I wouldn’t call the cops because why would they believe me, a teenager? Or even a teacher? There’s a risk in being labeled crazy or even being institutionalized.

    I consider the human world’s acceptance of magic similar to how the Buffy universe operates… People know it happens but it’s not discussed because it would seem crazy to those outside of Sunnydale (or Canterlot High in this instance). Cops are not called because the heroes (Buffy and crew) know that introducing another element (cop with weapon, limited human powers, and no context of situation) is likely dangerous… So best not involve them in magical occurrences.
    X-files operates this way too, but it weaves it into the story more deeply because the show is about the mystery. Something really insane might happen, but no one will believe the witnesses.
    Principal Celestia sort of alludes to this when she teases Cinch that the school board won’t believe her. Cinch doesn’t want to come off as a nuttbag, so she can’t say anything.
    Then, at a certain point it becomes a gag that no one notices or does anything about the weirdness of the magic. It’s a humorous cog in the cartoon universe. Plus the stories are not about calling the authorities on magical happenings, the stories are about friendship and interpersonal relations… Within the time restraints of a movie… the finer points of world building are sacrificed to focus on character relations because it’d be boring if it was all exposition.

  3. Limey Lassen says:

    Okay, I just went back and read all your other articles. This stuff is solid gold.

  4. Pingback: Cadance and Shining’s foal is a [redacted] — and I’m actually happy about that | The Pony's Litterbox

  5. Pingback: FiM’s great exposition, part 2: “Friendship is Magic, Pt. 1” and Howard Tayler’s three* levels of worldbuilding | The Pony's Litterbox

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