If you recall back in January, I voted My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic as one of the best cartoons of 2011 because, well, it was. I wouldn’t count myself amongst the “bronies” (adult male fans obsessed with the show), but I’ve enjoyed it for the snappy jokes, strong characters, well-written songs and impressive Flash animation (a well-animated Flash cartoon is harder to find than you think). Though decidedly marketed toward little girls, it has a broad enough appeal so as not to alienate all other demographics, so even young boys and adults can find something to enjoy.
But you want to know what did have such narrow-appeal as to alienate all other demographics? The My Little Pony cartoons from the 80s.
Memories of the insipid Pony cartoons of my youth were the biggest hurdle in giving the new series a try, as I vividly recalled them as being the animated equivalent of mindless, saccharine baby talk. But since I try not to resort strictly to my 20+ year-old memories for perspective, I figured I’d exploit the power of YouTube to see if they were as brain damaging as I remembered.
The first thing I learned is that the Pony cartoon I actually remember, the one where the equines walked on two legs, played soccer, baked cookies and wrote in diaries, was actually the second TV series called My Little Pony Tales. And about a minute and a half of that was enough to cement my memories as being well-preserved. Or, at the very least, it was a show marketed toward preschool-aged girls and absolutely no one else.
However, since what I remembered was the original-original My Little Pony, but a non-canonical sequel series or something, I decided to look up an episode guide on Wikipedia and start from the very beginning. As it turns out, the very first cartoon was a 1984 pilot/TV special starring Sandy Duncan and Tony Randall, titled “Rescue at Midnight Castle”. And imagine my surprise upon learning that the Ponies of the 80s were a bunch of bloodthirsty thrill-seekers.
Pictured: Bloodthirsty Thrill-Seekers
Produced by Marvel/Sunbow (the production company Hasbro employed to make all their shows, like Transformers, G.I. Joe and Jem), I can honestly say that the best way to describe this cartoon is “bipolar”. First and foremost, it clearly has female toddlers as its target audience, with supposedly cute/pretty horses running around wildflower fields, giggling and frolicking to sleepy nursery rhyme-style music, talking about how every Pony is special and so on and so forth. Pretty much exactly what I was expecting this thing to be.
Then two and a half minutes elapses and things go totally bonkers.
Because that’s when the sky turns black and a snarly baboon-monster named Scorpan swoops down with his fleet of roaring dragons which abscond with a pair of horrified, screaming Ponies by clutching them in their talons and dragging them off by the hair of the manes. And then every Pony proceeds to freak the hell out because they’re just as shocked as I was.
It looks like, at least in this original pilot, the My Little Pony cartoon had ambitions of drawing in a young audience just as interested in Dungeons & Dragons-esque fantasy and adventure, with horrifying monsters and diabolical, ruthless overlords. While the toys were strictly for little girls, the cartoon seemed to be casting a wider net, even if the two competing aspects of the show (adorable horsies and demonic hellbeasts) were pretty damn incongruous with each other.
This is no more evident than in the following scene, where we’re introduced to the villain of the piece: Tirak. And this is the point where I really have to fess up and admit that the production of this pilot is positively outstanding in everything from the animation to the sound design. In regards to the latter, the scene that introduces Tirak is just amazing to listen to. Voiced by Victor Caroli (better known as the oddly spooky narrator for Transformers), he’s flanged with this gruesome echoing noise that really elevates Caroli’s already wonderful performance (the way he transitions from a low, threatening hush to a maniacal scream is fantastic). But accentuating that is his evil plot device: the “Powers of Darkness”. Said powers are presented as a still-beating, disembodied heart crammed inside a burlap sack that Tirak is constantly clutching and caressing. Pretty dark stuff.
The animation from Japanese studio Toei (whom Marvel/Sunbow routinely outsourced their shows) is also worth note for not only the consistency in quality, but for the little character nuances and atmospheric effects (Tirak is first shown bathed in shadow with some nice glow effects here and there). The part where he orders his slave, Scorpan, bow to him is made all the better by a small little detail; Scorpan’s clenched fist twitching with impotent rage. The direction and production on this thing is really quite good by 1984 standards and I think anybody with a good eye for animation will appreciate the overall quality of this pilot.
But then the scene shifts back to the Ponies again. Lame.
One of the Pegasus Ponies, Firefly, decides to go look for help and pretty much kidnaps the first human girl she meets (a prepubescent ranch hand named Megan) and there’s a really forgettable song in there about self esteem or something. Then Scorpan shows up and kidnaps two more Ponies and drags them kicking and screaming back to Tirak. Sweet! Apparently, Tirak needs the Ponies to lead his chariot into the sky so he can use the Powers of Darkness to plunge the world into eternal night. Unfortunately, one of the fillies is too small so he has her thrown in a dungeon. He then transforms the remaining three into slobbering winged monsters. As added incentive for Scorpan to procure a fourth Pony, he has his friend Spike (a baby dragon) carted off to the dungeon, too. Under no uncertain terms he explains that should Scorpan fail to find a Pony before midnight, Spike will be decapitated.
Then we go back to the Ponies and good god are they incompetent. Since the powers of an 8 year-old girl were no match for the forces of Hell, they decide to find someone else to fight their battles for them. Along the way they fall into a river because, again, incompetent, and they’re rescued by the freakish Sea Ponies. That’s after a musical number where the Sea Ponies joke about how awful it would be to drown in a watery grave, but no seriously we’re going to rescue you, just kiddin’. Then they go meet Tony Randall who plays a dwarf or an elf or something, and HE sings a song, too. This time about forgetting where he left a rainbow which he claims will conveniently resolve the conflict in the last few minutes of the cartoon. They find it and leave Tony Randall behind to count his money and survive on it until the greatest role of his life comes along: Brain from Gremlins 2.
So after infiltrating Nightmare Castle (with more help from the Sea Ponies), Applejack gets taken prisoner and transformed into a monster to pull Tirak’s chariot because jeez, do I even need to say it? Scorpan defects, but Tirak beats him senseless and flies into the sky to unleash the Powers of Darkness. Then the Ponies release the rainbow and… well…
They straight-up kill Tirak by blowing his ass to smithereens. Like I said at the start of this article: “Bloodthirsty”.
Anyway, with Tirak dead, Scorpan returns to his human form but the writers couldn’t think of a proper beat to end the pilot on so one of the Ponies sneezes herself into a pond and everybody laughs like an idiot. Role credits.
Just so you know, the rest of the classic 80s My Little Pony series wasn’t like this. Following the pilot, it got retooled and the aspects that were included to draw in young male viewers (scary monsters, hellish villains, surprising amounts of violence) were discarded in order to devote the full amount of the show’s marketing powers to the preschool girl demographic. Even Megan, who was presented as a tomboy in ranch hand clothing got reworked into a frilly pink dress-wearing type so that young girls could better identify with her. That isn’t to say later Marvel/Sunbow Pony productions didn’t have their moments of weirdness and darker fantasy (from what I’ve read, the Smooze gave a lot of kids bad dreams), but don’t expect to see anything like this ever again.
In a way, I can see why they made the change. I called this pilot “bipolar” and that’s because it really doesn’t blend the two elements very well at all. Instead, the toddler-friendly cuteness is constantly juxtaposed with the young male-friendly monsters and carnage, resulting in something so schizophrenic that it has the power to repel both audiences. And since the toyline it was created to market was for preschool-aged girls, that’s the half of the split personality that won out.
While the contemporary Friendship is Magic series does a better job of being a show for little girls that manages to appeal to other audiences, I think fans of that incarnation should give this aged pilot a watch. You’ll find lots of familiar elements; particularly analogues to FiM characters like Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Spike and, obviously, Applejack. Though the fantasy-adventure is a rather infrequent aspect of the new show, it’s the driving point of this thing and a nice diversion from the piddly, sugary nonsense of the intermediary programs.
But for everything familiar, there’s something shockingly different. In the current series, villains are defeated “nicely” (shown the error of their ways, encased in stone, banished to the wastelands), but in this pilot the Ponies show no compunctions about murdering their adversaries with a massive fireball. And with the exception of Firefly, none of the Ponies have any personality to speak of; or what passes for personality is merely a cardboard placeholder. And as I mentioned earlier, these Ponies are absolutely incompetent and incapable of doing anything on their own. They go to the first little girl they can find to bail them out of a jam. They go to a dwarf-thing to fork over a weapon to smite their foe. They rely on Scorpan’s defection to rescue their imprisoned friend. Hell, they can’t even cross a bridge without having to get help!
And while I applaud the overall production values of this pilot and the attention to detail, at least two things stuck out to me. The voice acting is stellar on part of everybody but the Ponies; they all sound either really disinterested or terribly labored (like they’re trying way too hard to be “cute”). And lastly, this thing is only 22 minutes long and it packs a LOT of material in, feeling really frantic and rushed. I was actually expecting it to be an hour, but no.
Still, as random and weird and uneven as this thing may be, it’s those qualities that give it a certain amount of entertainment value. The cute and happy-go-lucky Ponies getting harassed by snarling monsters seems more like something you’d view in a cynical parody than the real thing and I’ve got to admit it’s pretty funny. And Tirak is a villain with such a presence of genuine evil and malice that I’m pretty sure he meant to audition for a role on Visionaries or Dungeons & Dragons but went to the wrong studio by mistake.