Tempest Shadow–a vengeful unicorn with a broken horn–invades Equestria on behalf of her master The Storm King, obsessed with capturing Princess Twilight Sparkle so she can steal her magic. Twilight and her friends are forced to flee their kingdom and venture beyond it for the first time in their lives, where they must survive slave markets, pirates, con artists, and an ocean full of wonders. But bonds become tested as the journey becomes more perilous, and Twilight might have to do questionable deeds if she’s going to save her land from certain destruction.

Before we get on with the review, let’s briefly talk about Lionsgate, a studio that somehow got distribution rights to this movie despite having a terrible track record on releasing animated films. Whether good (Shaun the Sheep Movie) or bad (Norm of the North), their cartoon features have always brought in underwhelming box office returns. What makes My Little Pony: The Movie different is that it’s a property that already has a built-in audience, one which brings in more than $600 million annually for its parent company Hasbro. Unfortunately, they apparently felt that that would be enough to make the film into a hit, with television advertising not beginning until about three weeks ago and an inexplicable review embargo that kept write-ups from being published until the day before the movie’s release. People won’t show up for your film if they don’t even know it’s coming out, and going by the disappointing opening weekend numbers, it appears that Lionsgate didn’t know what to do with the film.

All of which is a shame, since My Little Pony: The Movie is an extremely solid adaptation of the series on which its based. In fact, it might be the best film of its kind since the first SpongeBob movie. Fans of the franchise will almost certainly adore it, while newcomers should be able to appreciate the splashy animation and toe-tapping songs. Like the cartoon, it takes heavy inspiration from the great Disney movies of the 90’s, something which has given My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic a nostalgic whimsy that has made it just as appealing for many adults as it has for children.

One of the biggest successes about My Little Pony: The Movie is that it feels like a movie, rather than merely an extended episode of the show. Screenwriter Meghan McCarthy (a frequent contributor to the cartoon) and her team have done a terrific job of keeping the story from feeling episodic, and even though the film’s heroes encounter several new characters (so many that the movie makes a meta-joke towards the end about there possibly being too many of them), they never threaten to take things over or drag any of the adventure down. The scope of the movie is also massive when compared to the series, with the widescreen animation looking much lusher and more fluid than a television budget will allow.

Music has always played a crucial role with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (listen to this song and tell me it’s not stuck in your head for the rest of the day), and the movie is no exception. My Little Pony: The Movie features six different musical numbers, ranging from the cheerful to the surprisingly bleak. Tempest Shadow’s Open Up Your Eyes might take some audience members aback with how powerful it is, with the screen overflowing with fiery visuals and Emily Blunt’s strong vocals dominating the soundtrack. Of the various high profile actors involved here, Blunt is easily the standout, making her character almost shockingly menacing while still giving her voice the required hint of pain. Some might be surprised that the film’s big bad The Storm King is largely played for laughs, but Liev Schreiber is having such a good time with the role that it’s impossible not to enjoy him.

Still, this is ultimately a pony show, and fortunately the movie allows for them to take the spotlight here. Some longtime fans might be disappointed that each pony doesn’t get an individual chance to shine (Fluttershy, alas, never gets to be “assertive,” and fan favorite Derpy has a blink-and-you’ll-miss it cameo), but the film treats all of them with respect and even takes a few borderline risks with them. Perhaps even more so than its music and sly sense of humor, Friendship is Magic’s resonance with its viewers has largely depended on its well-rounded characters, so when Twilight says something cross to her friends that she immediately regrets, it’s genuinely hurtful.

My Little Pony: The Movie is more or less a love letter to its fans, while audience members who have never seen an episode of the series should still be able to walk in and not be terribly confused by anything. Like last year’s Trolls (a movie I keep coming back to for whatever reason), its cheerful, non-cynical nature might not be for everyone, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who likes the cartoon not enjoying it. Though box office numbers have sadly made a sequel unlikely, it would certainly be welcome.

(Note: My Little Pony: The Movie is preceded by a Hanazuki: World Full of Treasures short film. It’s…probably really confusing for anyone unfamiliar with that series, and a title card before the short assures audiences that the My Little Pony movie will begin as soon as it’s over, as though Hasbro was afraid baffled viewers might leave the theater)

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

My Little Pony: The Movie
Lionsgate, Hasbro
October 6th, 2017
99 minutes
Rated PG
Directed by Jayson Thiessen