|OBJECTION! TAKE THAT!|
It’s October 22, 2011. Adele still owns the pop charts, and the top movie is Paranormal Activity 3. We’re in for a long stretch of awful on the movie front, honestly; I peeked ahead and, except for one bright weekend of Robert Downey, Jr., there’s nothing good in the top spot from here until late March.
In real news, crazy rich person Richard Branson opens a spaceport, utterly transforming manned space exploration from a publicity stunt Cold War nations used to remind everyone they had rockets capable of dropping nuclear warheads anywhere on the planet into a publicity stunt Richard Branson uses to remind everyone he’s crazy rich. The Libyan National Transitional Council ends a month-long siege of the city of Sirte, kills deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and consolidates their control of the country. And the European economy is struggling, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the austerity measures they passed despite every economist on the planet screaming at them that it was economic suicide.
On TV, we have “Luna Eclipsed,” written by M.A. Larson and–in a first for the series–not directed by James Wootton, but rather by Jayson Thiessen. Thiessen co-directed “The Return of Harmony” with Wootton, and will co-direct every two-parter in the second and third seasons with him, along with solo directing half the episodes in the second and third seasons and taking over as Supervising Director in the fourth season. Also, he’s the voice of Snowflake.
This is a great episode to bring him up in, because this episode has a lot of crowd scenes, and Thiessen excels at them. Take a look in the backgrounds as Twilight or Luna walk around town; they are full of ponies doing things. Too often in animation–and sadly, this includes some episodes of Friendship Is Magic–background characters either don’t exist or just stand there. Here, even when the characters aren’t moving, they active.
Consider the first shot after the opening credits: We open on Nightmare Moon’s face as the music makes this creepy high-pitched howl. The we pan over to a long shot where Twilight and Spike walk and talk. What’s interesting is that there are three separate planes of motion here–the two ponies dressed as a lion and a bee in front, then the top-hatted pony pulling the hayride quite a distance behind them, and then Twilight and Spike quite small in the back. It’s a very interesting choice, since it means we have to look past all this other action to watch Twilight. In turn that means we can’t focus on any one of the several actions going on, giving the impression of a bustling, lively evening. It’s impressive, especially considering the shot lasts a matter of seconds before it switches to one that keeps Twilight out in front; it lasts just long enough to give the impression of a street festival but not long enough for the viewer to count how few ponies there are.
Throughout her first speech in this scene, Twilight moves quickly from scene to scene, and in each one she’s in a different layer, meaning the viewer has to keep looking around the town, ensuring they catch all the little details the animators put in. In turn, that means those details all work to full effectiveness, actually reducing the number of ponies needed to make this seem like a massive event. All told, there are maybe a couple of dozen ponies shown actually attending Nightmare Night; compare the numerically much larger, but much more static and statically shot crowd scenes in “Super Cider Squeezy 6000” (probably the Wootton solo episode with the best crowd scenes) to see what a difference there is between using framing and carefully placed details to suggest a well-attended event and just pointing a camera at a large number of ponies. Which is not at all, of course, to say that Wootton is a bad director, just that Thiessen is astoundingly good at crowd scenes.
There’s also a ton of great background and sight gags, musical puns, and really clever jokes in this episode, to the point of almost being distracting. My two favorite examples come in the first few minutes of the episode–the fact that the music at the start of the cold open is extremely reminiscent of In the Hall of the Mountain King, and the “amniomorphic spell” gag (which, despite the etymology being off, is almost certainly an impressively subtle Harry Potter reference).
On a story and character level, the primary function of this episode is to flesh out Luna’s character a bit and set her up as a way to show how far Twilight has come. The Moon, in addition to being a feminine symbol and a symbol of dreams, is also the lesser light, a reflection of the Sun, and thus it’s fitting that Luna in this episode is a lesser version of first-episode Twilight, a newcomer who doesn’t fit in and is strikingly ambivalent about whether she wants to.
Though the cause of Luna’s problem is that she is time-lost and missed a thousand years of social evolution, her problem itself is one virtually everyone has experienced, that of being new to somewhere or something, and being rejected by more experienced peers. Luna is, in other words, every kid who’s ever started a new school, every newly minted fan who’s ever been called a noob, every traveler who’s found themselves trying to live in a new city or a new country. She tries to behave the ways she’s used to behaving, what her experiences have taught her is the right way to be, and everyone around her rejects her. Is it any wonder she lashes out?
By contrast, we have Twilight, once the noob, now become the forum diplomat who takes noobs under her metaphorical (for now) wing. Freed from the requirement of learning a friendship lesson every week, she can now begin sharing them with others, guiding and teaching Luna in the basics of relating to other ponies–which Luna has clearly never done, as regardless of era the Royal Canterlot Voice seems designed to create a distance between the ruler and her subjects. Twilight has, in academic terms, moved on to graduate work, and with that comes her first teaching assignments. After all, they say the best way to truly learn something is to try to teach it to someone else.
But what’s best about this episode is that, unlike most fish out of water comedies, it doesn’t put all the burden of change on either side. There is no message here that Ponyville has been unaccepting and needs to change while Luna stays the same, or conversely that Luna needs to change to fit in and the ponies were right to reject her. It stays exactly where it should be, which is acknowledging that most conflict between people requires some change on both sides.
To the children, it says “Yes, sometimes you have to make a little effort to fit in, but don’t change who you are.” And to the bronies, it says, “Yes, those people who picked on you were mean, but that doesn’t mean that you are a flawless saint. You could do a better job of relating to people.”
Because look around you. How much of the trouble in this world is because of people rejecting others who are weird or different and therefore scary? How much of it is because people go among strangers and expect not to have to change the ways they’re used to behaving?
And what could a generation of kids raised to know better do? What could an army of fans learning it, better late than never, do?
Because that’s another great secret of Friendship Is Magic: True alchemy, true transformation, isn’t a flare of light and a new pair of wings. It’s a process, bit by bit, tiny incremental changes, almost unnoticeable. Drops in the bucket, until one day suddenly the bucket overflows and the change seems to happen all at once, even though it was really happening all along.
Next week: Surprise guest post! I’m taking my birthday off, so in my place Spoilers Below has an article for you all. I’ve read it, and it’s a cracking good one. No spoilers beyond that–if zie wants to give you hints about what it’s on, zie can do so in the comments. Anyway, the week after that I’ll be back to talk about sisterhood, solidarity, and noobs.