In the wake of season three, I’ve been giving a lot more thought to the idea of creative intent in MLP. I mentioned at one point in my season three overview that reading creative intent into an animated series is quite difficult, but also that it’s something I’ve more or less specialized in for years while writing my anime blog. I don’t know that divining the creative intent behind MLP would enhance the show in any way, and in some cases, proving that the creators intended for something to be seen a certain way might actually prove that the writers have failed in places. I’m not interested in arguing whether the writers have made good or bad decisions, though—I’m only interested in determining what those decisions were.
As I watch more interviews with the creators of the show, I feel like I may understand them even better than I’ve given myself credit for. I was shocked to find out that Meghan McCarthy had been directly inspired by Sauron from the Lord of the Rings in creating Sombra, which is the same comparison that I made in my Crystal Empire video. Again, this is interesting to me not from the standpoint of gauging whether or not Sombra really is like Sauron, but simply out of the fact that I was able to make the same kind of connection.
Seeing interviews with M.A. Larson and reading his twitter feed makes me feel pretty confident that I get what he’s going for in his episodes too.
I don’t feel like I’m taking shots in the dark by pointing out which things are consistent across episodes written by a single person. I’ve always felt I had a pretty good idea of what Studio B brings to the show as well. So there’s really just one person who’s creative intent I’m trying my hardest to wrap my head around, and it happens to be the most important creative mind to have worked on the show: Lauren Faust.
The influence of Faust on Friendship is Magic is pretty absolute. If everyone else that works on the show has left an indelible mark on it, Faust was the one who provided the canvas and half of the original picture. That said, I do think that her part in making the show GOOD can be overstated, depending on what in the show you happen to think is good.
What fascinates me the most is that Lauren Faust is credited as the creative developer, executive producer, creative director, and character designer of MLP, as well as having been credited for storyboarding and writing certain episodes and scenes.
A lot of these are roles that we ordinarily take for granted when talking about a show. Moreover, the role of “creative director” isn’t something that most shows or movies have. Rather, there’s usually someone who’s just called the “director” that people tend to look to when they’re looking for creative intent. MLP doesn’t just have a director—it has at least two people with the title of director, being James Wooten and Jayson Thiessen, as well as the creative director, Lauren Faust. Now, it’s not uncommon in animation for there to be a director and a supervising director, and it’s also not uncommon for there to be a lot of individual episode directors. Faust herself has been an episode director for certain episodes of the Powerpuff Girls and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends.
MLP doesn’t have episode directors though, it has the two main directors who have worked on all three seasons, and are probably responsible for keeping the show consistent in tone and pacing. Out of three seasons of MLP, there are only a couple of episodes that don’t really feel like any others, and most of those are season bookends.
So, let’s cut to the chase. Lauren Faust laid the groundwork on which MLP was built. She was heavily involved in the beginning, and had less of a role in producing season two, and was gone entirely by the time season three was produced. Outside of laying the groundwork that is consistent across every episode of MLP, what else did Lauren Faust bring to the table? Where is her mark on the series most clearly noticeable?
This is the hardest question to answer, because it’s not obvious. My Little Pony’s animation has remained consistent, with the only change being a steady improvement. The voice acting has followed the same trend. The style of directing and the tone and pacing of the show have never changed in any significant way. There’s only one really big way in which any episode of MLP seems to be different from any another, and that’s in the way that each episode is written.
That’s why the writers seem to be so noticeable in MLP, and why I’ve made a habit of mentioning them when talking about each episode. This is not always true of a show. In anime, it’s very rare for the writers to make a huge difference the way they do in MLP. If I was analyzing an anime, I might talk about the influence of a studio, or a specific animator, or an episode director, but in MLP, the big point of interest is in the writers.
And this is precisely the reason it’s so hard to pick out Lauren’s creative intent in comparison to the intents of the other writers: Lauren Faust has only been credited as a writer on three episodes.
But as it happens, these episodes do stand out, and are every bit as indicative of who wrote them as the episodes by any other writer. In fact, the three episodes that Lauren wrote, which are the first three episodes of the show, by the way, form a pretty clear arc, and I think identifying this arc is very telling about what Lauren wanted to do with her part in the show.
Here is my thesis: the first three episodes of MLP form an arc, in which each episode is intended to establish some facet of the five ponies that Twilight Sparkle becomes friends with. The first episode is meant to establish who these characters are, in terms of what they do and what they’re all about. The second episode establishes what kind of friend each of them is, in terms of what kind of benefit they bring to Twilight. And the third episode is meant to establish each character’s flaws—how each of them fails as people and as friends.
The first episode does a pretty amazing job of establishing all kinds of shit in a very brisk fashion. Coming back to this episode with a bigger knowledge of the show, it’s kind of crazy to see just how much exposition was crammed into such a small space. Here’s a list of things that you can learn from this episode:
1. There is a land of ponies called equestria
2. Equestria is ruled by princesses
3. In this world, there is magic, and it is used to actually run the world, i.e. raising the sun and the moon
4. The whole history of Celestia and Luna
5. Twilight cares more about books than friends
6. Twilight has a dragon assistant named Spike
7. Twilight lives in a library
8. Twilight can use magic to do stuff like read books
9. Twilight is the understudy of the princess and communicates with her via notes sent by dragon flame
10. There’s a town called Ponyville, and Twilight will stay in a library there
11. Pinkie Pie is insane
12. Applejack lives on a farm and kicks trees
13. Applejack has a southern accent and mannerisms
14. Applejack has a massive family who all seem to work in the apple industry
15. Rainbow Dash is a reckless and cocky
16. Rainbow Dash wants to join the Wonderbolts, which are the most talented flyers in all of Equestria (by the way, where the hell were they at the celebration)
17. Rainbow Dash is very fast
18. Spike is in love with Rarity
19. Rarity is a very passionate fashionista
20. Canterlot is a glamorous, sophisticated place that Rarity wants to live in
21. Fluttershy is really shy, and also talks to animals
22. Dragons don’t seem to be very common in pony society
23. Fluttershy will open up and become passionate when dealing with non-hooved animals
24. Twilight can be manipulative
25. Pinkie Pie throws surprise parties and talks too much and knows everyone and has a very strong physical constitution
26. Twilight is extremely irritable
27. Ponyville has a mayor
28. Rainbow Dash is really aggressive
29. Applejack holds things together
30. Pinkie Pie jokes in the face of danger
and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things.
Episode two slows things down a lot, exposing way less about the world and how it works, and more focusing on providing an exciting adventure story while establishing what each of these ponies contributes to the magic that is friendship.
And please note how I’ve chosen my words carefully here. I think it’s important to realize that MLP was never trying to say that these ponies are the embodiment of whatever quality they are characterized as, but actually meant to say that they embody those aspects OF FRIENDSHIP. What does that mean exactly?
Well, for instance, I would say that the best thing I bring to my group of friends is some element of leadership. I always play the role of the leader in my group of friends, leading what we talk about and adding some kind of officiality to the things that we try to do. It’s not so much that I’m a good leader, or that people really follow me, as it is that I bring that sense of togetherness to the group. Outside my group of friends, though, I very rarely take leadership roles, preferring the role of a close contributor to others. That’s why I’m not the type to lead a collaborative effort, but I am the time to join in one that’s already been established.
If one of my friends were to be in the position of Twilight Sparkle, where they were declaring what element of friendship each of their friends brought to the table, and they called me the element of leadership, and then you got to watch my every day life the way that you get to watch the characters on the show, you’d probably call bullshit, just as many people have called bullshit on the elements in the show. People ask how can Rarity represent generosity when she’s so often selfish? But the point isn’t that she embodies generosity itself, so much as that she brings a heavy element of generosity to the spirit of the group. You could even say that she might foster generosity within the group, kind of like a status buff to a party in an RPG.
Even after clarifying all of this, though, I still think that the elements could have been presented better. The idea that Applejack represents honesty is iffy, especially because the context for Twilight saying this makes little sense. Okay, was Applejack really going to lie about the fact that it was safe to let go? Would she have been anything but honest here? If anything it’s just a weird scene, because AJ didn’t tell Twi why she was going to be safe. I’ve always thought this was a badly done and worded scene, and I think that AJ’s element should have been something like “dependability.” Especially because in the first three episodes, Lauren seemed to really want to represent her as the most dependable member of the group, holding everyone else together; and in the fourth episode, the entire plot was about how her stubborn pride got in the way of the dependability she was known for.
Of course, “dependable” is practically a synonym for “loyal,” which then brings us to Rainbow Dash, who I do think is very loyal. There was a great joke in Friendship is Witchcraft about how Rainbow and Applejack’s elements should have been reversed, and in a way, being the element of honesty would make episodes like Read It And Weep fall more in line with episodes like Sweet and Elite, Applebuck Season, and Party of One, by showing how the character’s element could be flipped on its head. Still, I don’t really have a problem with Rainbow Dash being the element of loyalty, nor with her scene in this episode. Applejack’s is the only one that bothers me.
So, without commenting too much on the specifics, we’ve had an episode to establish all kinds of stuff about the world and the basics of the characters, and another episode to establish what kind of friends each of the mane six are.
And this brings us to The Ticket Master, which is an episode about failing like crazy. Before I even say anything about this episode, I MUST bring up the post that was written about it by my friend Misfortune-Dogged. In his post, Dogged questions the authenticity of the show’s moral messages and dissects just how unclean and interesting the characterization of this episode really is. This post was massively influential to the way that I view and write about the characters in this show, and I consider it a must-read. I’ve put a link to the post in the description. It’s not an easy read, but if you really want to start analyzing this show on a deeper level, it’s a magnificent place to start. Seriously. Go read that shit.
So anyways, in this episode, all of Twilight’s friends are kind of shitty and insufferable. Applejack puts herself on a moral high horse, believing that she has the best reason to go to the gala without really stopping to take anything into consideration. Rainbow blatantly cares more about her own goals than anyone else’s. Pinkie Pie doesn’t even consider the idea that she is cutting off someone else by demanding to go. Rarity is somewhere between AJ and Rainbow Dash. Fluttershy is downright manipulative. None of them has a moment of individual realization—it takes Twilight outright telling them that they’re being a bunch of assholes before they shape up their behavior. It’s kind of a dark episode really, wherein Twilight is exhausted by continuous hunger and obnoxious friends who can’t read the clear signs that she’s uncomfortable. It wraps up in a kind of dubious lesson, though I guess the more important lesson is that friends can be forgiving of one-another’s crippling flaws.
So. Having recognized this three-episode stretch as an establishment arc, what does this then tell us about the style of Lauren Faust? To me, it seems to show that the most important thing to Faust was the realization of these characters. These episodes manage to be so focused on their goals that there’s a lot less of the side-stories and gag moments that you might get from other episodes. Some might say that this extra concentration is a good thing, but I actually think it’s part of why these episodes are weaker.
After all, I’m not a big fan of Friendship is Magic Part Two, nor The Ticket Master. Both episodes have a very slow pace that seems to drag along. FiM Part Two did very little to endear me to the characters, and there’s not a lot of cool stuff that makes it worth coming back to for me. Giggle at the Ghosty and the admittedly awesome final scene are the only parts of the episode that I find memorable. The Ticket Master meanwhile is totally forgettable, and is even among the episodes that I’ve seen the fewest references and memes about in the fandom.
Lauren Faust created an amazing show, full of amazing characters and ideas, but I kind of feel that the way she wrote the characters herself was not that engaging. Even though Lauren Faust was integral to their development, I think it was the little touches that each writer added to the characters over the course of the show that really brought them to life. Faust created an excellent springboard in these episodes—she gave the ponies the capacity to fail, and constructed their core essence in a very careful manner to establish them with an exacting vision; but it wasn’t until other writers got their hands on the characters that they began to emerge as fully realized beings.
That’s why I think it’s so important to recognize the creative contributions of everyone in the staff of MLP. The world would never have come to life the way it did without Studio B’s dedication. The characters are not merely the designs and establishing episodes created by Lauren, but are also the expressive animations, energetic voice work, and varied writing of the rest of the team. I wouldn’t want an Applejack or a Twilight Sparkle without the marks that have been left on them by M.A. Larson, Meghan McCarthy, Amy Keating Rogers, Cindy Morrow, Merriwether Williams, Charlotte Fullerton, Dave Polsky, and Corey Powell. I could… probably do without the Chris Savino’s marks though.