Today, My Little Pony: The Movie soars into theaters, promising to delight kids with the power of friendship, magic, and brand recognition. But even if your kid is a massive Pony fan, you probably don’t know that this is not the first time a My Little Pony movie has made it to the big screen. In 1986, right at the height of the first wave on Ponymania, Hasbro tried to cash in with the original My Little Pony: The Movie. The film featured the voice work of Danny DeVito, Madeline Khan, Cloris Leachman, and Tony Randall. With so much talent and a can’t miss property, why has almost no one heard of it?
Well, the film was bludgeoned by critics. Charles Solomon of The Los Angeles Times wrote “The sugary cuteness of the Little Ponies masks a corporate greed as cold and sharp as a razor blade.” Nina Darnton of The New York Times was equally vicious, claiming “Their world is so saccharine sweet, so made of plastic that when the witch wants to wipe it out, it may be hard for some adults not to sympathize.” Audiences seemed to agree, as the film only made $6 million and failed to make any sort of impact on the pop culture landscape.
But could the movie really be that bad? Plenty of kid’s movies are terrible. What makes this one tragically so? I decided to get to the bottom of this mystery by watching this forgotten chapter in Pony history 31 years after its debut. And I can confidently, and even happily, say that the film 100 percent lived up to its piss-poor reputation.
What makes this movie so bad? Oh, dear reader, where do I even begin? I’m not going to spend too much time on the plot due to its overwhelming blandness but it boils down to this: Ponies are happy and magical. Evil witch does not like that ponies are happy. Witch drives ponies out of their kingdom. Ponies must restore order with the power of magic and friendship. Needless to say, this plot doesn’t do much in terms of innovation.
But thin plots are standard in kids’ movies and can be forgiven if the movie has memorable characters, catchy songs, and quotable dialogue. Unfortunately, the OG My Little Pony has none of these things. The characters show no discernible qualities that make them unique or engaging in any way and all the dialogue is so stiff and generic it feels like it was written by aliens who haven’t quite cracked the code on human interaction. The animation is shoddy, even by the low standards of the eighties. As for the songs, I forgot each one as it was being sung.
Mostly, this movie is really, really weird. But not the fun kind of weird that you sometimes find in kids’ movies, like Labyrinth or Fantasia. Oh no — the strangeness stems from trying to figure out how the hell this movie got made. Whoever made it seems to have no idea what they want a My Little Pony movie to look like. It’s not an issue of tonal inconsistency. It’s an issue of not having any established tone, period.
And while the movie’s plot may be a cocktail of lazy and stupid, the subplots are where things really go off the rails. At one point, the witch sends her daughters to find a monster that somehow looks like a plant and an octopus at the same time. The vague excuse offered for their journey is something about fueling her evil substance known as Smooze but it’s pretty clear they just needed to fill time. The sequence hijacks a significant chunk of the hour and a half movie. Inconsequential subplots like these take up so much of the film that I found myself forgetting what the actual movie was about. Then I would remember and wish I hadn’t.
The real tragedy of the original My Little Pony: The Movie is something that happens a lot with kids’ movies: How can a movie that exists in a fantastical world of magic and adventure manage to be so incredibly dull? There are singing horses, indestructible slime, and something called a Grundle King and yet it’s still hard to imagine kids of any age finding this movie entertaining. Despite only being 87 minutes, the movie drags along at an excruciating pace with no clear purpose or direction.
The one redeeming quality in the My Little Pony movie is the cast, all of whom deserve so much better than this. DeVito particularly shines as the Grundle King. What exactly is a Grundle King? It’s never made entirely clear, but they’re sort of a mix between gnomes and gremlins and Loraxes and he’s as curmudgeonly a creature as has ever stepped foot in a children’s movie. Seeing the Grundle King stumble around and slobber angrily as the ponies try to convince him to help them is entertaining because it’s an unintentional preview of DeVito’s legendarily depraved performance on It’s Always Sunny.
But even Kahn, Randall, and the rest of the cast also managing strong voice work is not nearly enough to redeem this rainbow-colored failure. So if you’re going to see a movie about flying Ponies this weekend, do yourself a favor and see the new version. It may not be what most would consider great art but at least there’s an interesting villain.