"MY LITTLE PONY: THE MOVIE" — 1½ stars — Voices of Emily Blunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Liev Schreiber, Michael Pena, Zoe Saldana; PG (mild action); in general release
The best animated features strike a careful balance between entertaining their young target audiences and engaging the dutiful parents sitting next to them in the theater. "My Little Pony: The Movie" questions whether this balance is needed, as it seems utterly indifferent to the plight of parents.
The movie's lack of parental appeal would be more forgivable, or at least justifiable, if it made a better effort to provide a quality product for the kids in the audience. Director Jayson Thiessen's film makes other similar semimusical kid-friendly productions, like last year's "Trolls," seem vastly improved by comparison.
The plot is centered on a group of multicolored talking ponies in a magical land called Equestria, who band together to defend their hometown of Ponyville against the invasion of a megalomaniacal baddie called The Storm King (Liev Schreiber). The plot is actually quite similar to last month's "LEGO Ninjago Movie."
The leader of the ponies is Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), a purple unicorn who is designated the Princess of Friendship in a presiding council of magic princess ponies. The community is made up of a diverse bunch of residents — some are unicorns, some have wings, some have magic powers — but "My Little Pony" never really explains who is who and why.
When The Storm King arrives, he quickly enslaves the peaceful pony residents, presumably so he can seize control of their magic powers over the sun and moon. But Twilight Sparkle is able to escape with a handful of her cohorts, along with a charge to seek out the Queen of the Hippogriffs (Uzo Aduba), who will know how to free Equestria from The Storm King's clutches.
Twilight Sparkle and her team that includes a giddy pink pony named Pinkie Pie (Andrea Libman), a cowgirl pony named Applejack (Ashleigh Ball) and a speedy blue male pony named Rainbow Dash (also Ball) are pursued by Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a disgraced pony with a broken horn who has taken up with The Storm King. As her backstory gets explored through the movie, you get the feeling a film focused on Tempest Shadow would have made for a more interesting movie.
Twilight Sparkle's hero's quest is punctuated by just enough infrequent song and dance numbers to classify "My Little Pony" as a musical (recording artist Sia has a supporting role as Songbird Serenade, the ponies' resident pop star), but it shouldn't be challenging "Frozen" for most popular soundtrack anytime soon.
Sadly, Thiessen's 99-minute film has the feel of a direct-to-video production that has been stretched out into feature length. The humor and writing — sprinkled with "Smurfs"-style pony puns — are weak and often cringeworthy, and the animation quality frequently feels stiff and cheap.
Parents would do well to skip "My Little Pony: The Movie." The better move would be to put their money into some new My Little Pony toys and let the kids imagine much more convincing adventures of their own.
"My Little Pony: The Musical" is rated PG for mild action; running time: 99 minutes.