They tell me that one of the major changes between the television series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and the spin-off theatrical feature My Little Pony: The Movie is that the film has substantially more polished animation. That could easily be the case, and if it is... oh dear. As 2017's solitary example of 2-D animated feature given a wide release in the United States, I find myself prone to making excuses for the film's animated style, but all that really tells us is that it's in need of those excuses to begin with.

I think the main thing going on here - I am not quite going to call it a "problem", because it's more peculiar than bad - is that the film is trying to repurpose characters who were designed for a very different set of technical limitations. Friendship Is Magic is created with Adobe's pro animation software (once Flash, since renamed), which dictates a very characteristic look of perfectly smooth motion of perfectly flat shapes. I hate it very much: it has usually leaves the characters looking they're floating on the backgrounds. Worse still, it has an almost inerrant tendency to render everything as rigid shapes perfectly retaining their form as they move - this is, in fact, one of the reasons for using the software in the first place - which means that there's absolutely no squashing and stretching, no elasticity to the characters at all, which to my mind is a violation of the whole point of character animation.

MLP: The Movie isn't that. But the characters were designed to function in that medium. They're meant to be seen from one angle at a time in two-dimensional space. So even though the film has been animated by a different studio, in a different environment - it was put together in Toon Boom Harmony, which has been responsible for some very fine-looking movies (though it, too has a bit of that "characters are floating away from the background" problem) - it suffers from the original sin of characters who look quite flat and formless even when they're turning around. Besides, while the animators aren't Friendship Is Magic veterans, the higher-up creatives are, including director Jayson Thiessen, which means that the same limitations that are forced in Flash are simply adopted here as habits. So still no squash and stretch.

I will say, despite all of that, the mere fact that the film is such a conspicuous stylistic monstrosity does end up being at least interesting to watch, as one attempts to process the subtly but pervasively wrong visuals. It's unsettling, but in a much more complicated way than a normal poorly-animated film (thus fulfilling my longstanding impression that shitty 2-D animation can still be worth looking at, whereas shitty 3-D animation generally is not). And quite altogether without reservation, I can say that I admire the film's color palette, which is cheery and highly saturated and still just enough towards pastels and away from primary colors that it feels soft and welcoming rather than brash and aggressive. So yes, it's worth looking at the film as a visual object, I'd say. Maybe for about 20 minutes - 10 for your eyes to stop watering, another 10 to process what's going.

I had plenty of time to thinking about this while watching My Little Pony: The Movie, first because it is too damn long, at 99 minutes. Which isn't "too long", obviously, but when the writers think in terms of half-hour TV slots, yes it is. Second, because nothing that happens in the film demands much at all in the way of attention from any viewer over the age of seven or eight. And let us not diminish the importance of movies for seven-year-olds! So much of children's cinema is pitched a couple of years higher than that, and for a movie to get a major release while setting its goals so narrowly warms my heart. Still, as an adult viewer, the message "sometimes you will fight with your friends, and it's important to make up with them" is awfully simplistic to spend 99 minutes watching colorfully ugly animation. Also, it's a message that gets pretty smeary thanks to the film's actual driving conflict, which involves some kind of pure evil armor-wearing baboon man voiced by Liev Schreiber (who is alone of the voice cast having any tangible amount of fun), whose removal from the film is astonishingly off-key given everything else.

Anyway, the film drags in a lot of celebrity ringers - Michael Peña, Kristin Chenoweth, Taye Diggs, Zoe Saldana, and Emily Blunt, who has strangely decided to pull out an anonymous American accent that makes her completely unrecognisable - but the main characters are a group of voice acting regulars, I am very happy to say. The film makes no effort to introduce most of its six protagonists, taking for granted that we know their backstory; thus I can't swear to know what the hell is going on, but it all centers on Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), who by virtue of being a winged horse and a unicorn occupies the position of power in this very conspicuously racially-stratified world. Twilight - Twilight Sparkle? - fuckit, just Twilight - is trying to put over the Friendship Festival, right at the moment that Tempest Shadow (Blunt), the quisling unicorn who serves as lieutenant to the Storm King (Schreiber) comes with her armies. Twilight escapes to go find the mysterious "hippos" with her five best friends - arrogant adrenaline junkie and winged horse Rainbow Dash (Ashleigh Ball), image-obsessed unicorn Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain), redneck bootlegger Applejack (Ball again), Fluttershy (Andrea Libman), whose deal I don't even get, and standard pony Pinkie Pie (also Libman), deep in some fearful mania that leads to her almost complete break from reality. Together, these six hope to save the town of Ponyville in the kingdom of Equestria and bring friendship to the loved and unloved alike. Spoiler alert: they succeed.

Enough of the jokes land that it's not a complete grind, and there are a number of good vocal performances - any time we can get some Tara Strong in our lives, it's ultimately the right choice - that makes the characters more interesting and likable than the writing. Which frankly makes them out to be appalling terrors, especially Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, who spend the whole movie recklessly endangering the lives of all their friends in different ways. Otherwise, the plot is adventure movie boilerplate, as the ponies go to Crime City and then Pirate Ship and then Lost Island. Along the way, some perplexingly over-imagined musical numbers trot their way across the soundtrack, with simply poppy tunes getting mangled by heavily prosy lyrics (Blunt's villain song is the most obviously bad, but it's the single line "Useful and resourceful too", given to Diggs, that makes me most wonder if songwriters Daniel Ingram and Michael Vogel have any real sense of how the human voice works). Also, the world's worst Hungry Hungry Hippos joke is jammed in artlessly to remind us that, when the day is done, we're stilling watching a toy commercial. A better toy commercial than any given Transformers picture, but still.