The same week I sat down to watch My Little Pony: The Movie, I attended an early screening of a rather different sort of film: the Winston Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour. Director Joe Wright credits the beloved British statesman (played by Gary Oldman in a remarkably convincing fat suit) with a great many achievements, including nothing less than ‘mobilising the English language.’ There is no doubt Churchill’s turn of phrase was, and remains, inspiring.
As I approach the box office to purchase a ticket to the aforementioned kids flick, however, beginning to regret a pledge I recently made to my editor to review any and everything, irrespective of how far I may be removed from the target audience (yes: he called my bluff) I cannot help but think that no string of words – spiffy or simple, profound or innocuous – can justify, in any reasonable person’s mind, what is about to follow. A mid-30s male purchasing one single adult ticket to My Little Pony.
How do I explain to the person behind the desk that I’m not a creep, a miscreant or a ‘Bronie’ (these are adult fans of the franchise, examined in a 2014 documentary) but a professional critic taking a bullet for the team? I’d done it before: an Alvin and the Squeakquel here, a 50 Shades of Grey there. But no media screenings were held for My Little Pony: a shame, because I was looking forward to the sight of critics scribbling down notes while watching it.
I know – or think – I shouldn’t care about other people’s perceptions, especially when all I am doing is my job. With any luck, it’ll be an empty cinema – and the only human interaction I’ll have to deal with is the chump working behind the counter and the chump inspecting tickets.
“I’ll have one adult to My Little Pony, unfortunately!” I end up blurting out, hoping that last word will clearly indicate I am not (or not completely) here on my own volition. The 20-something man laughs – a little forcefully – then proceeds to flounder around, evidently having trouble finding the session on the computer. “I think the problem is that it’s listed as a special event” he says, and calls the manager over for assistance. By now a line has formed behind me.
“What movie are you seeing?” The lady in charge asks me. Sigh. I respond: “My Little Pony.” The manager laughs. A big, throaty laugh. She is silent for a few seconds (which feel like an eternity) waiting for me to say “just kidding, Jigsaw” or “Blade Runner 2049.” When she realises that correction will never come, her face suddenly corrects itself: now serious, matter-of-fact.
“How many tickets?”
With my ticket finally in hand, I resolve to put that unfortunate encounter behind me and follow my original plan: to go under the radar. Incognito. This will involve slinking into the cinema and sitting towards the back, preferably somewhere bathed in shadows. People, if anybody else actually arrives, may not even realise I’m there. Let alone wonder why I am watching My Little Pony, unaccompanied.
I soon discover, however, to my utter horror, that the film is screening in a special ‘deluxe’ cinema. In these rooms there are around 30 seats, not the standard 150 or so – meaning there is no place to hide. Feeling terribly conspicuous, I sit in the back row as half a dozen women, all accompanied by very young daughters, file in. Each look at me as they find their seats. It might be because the scene at the box office has jangled my nerves, but I swear I can feel an interrogative heat in their gaze, like flames from a fire.
The movie begins. Director Jayson Thiessen introduces a group of sparkling toy ponies, known as the Mane 6, who are busy organising something called the ‘Friendship Festival.’ Their plans are rudely interrupted by a very mean unicorn with a broken horn, who crashes the party before it begins, and enslaves their village. The Mane 6 escape and go on an epic road trip.
The person who previously occupied the seat I am sitting on left the recliner in an awkward position, leg rest partially raised. I fumble around for the buttons to adjust it and press one near the right armrest, holding it in for a few seconds. It does nothing. I notice the symbol of a person to the left of the button, but don’t think much of it.
About ten minutes later, the Mane 6 have stumbled upon a Bartertown-esque location in the middle of the desert – a sort of tumble-down shanty town, full of wretched creatures who haggle over everything. At around this point, perhaps distracted by the lacklustre plotting, I look again at the button I pressed and realise it was to summon a staff member.
I clam up, frozen in shock. I imagine the door to the cinema swinging open and a staff member storming up to me. Heads – large and small – turn as he says, in a loud voice, “You pressed the button?” I tell him it was an accident. He leaves looking miffed, and tells me not to do it again.
I have now sunken so far into my recliner I feel like I have become a part of it, and it of me. A part of me hopes the furniture will come alive and swallow me whole – like in the outlandish 70s exploitation film Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.
About halfway through the running time, the ponies are on a pirate ship being piloted by a bunch of down-hearted parrots the Mane 6 reinvigorate through song and general, slightly irritating positivity. These scenes feel like cheap counterfeits of Studio Ghibli movies. It is then a little girl, who had previously been dancing in the aisle next to me, suddenly runs up to me and scares the bejesus out of me.
“Who’s your favourite pony?” she thunders. Caught violently unaware, I feel like an animal gawking into headlights. In this moment of panic, I cannot recall the name of a single character in the movie. “Equestria,” I finally respond. The girl doesn’t bat an eyelid and shoots back: “That’s not a pony! That’s where they live!”
And indeed, she is right. The kingdom of Equestria is where the magical ponies reside. All I can do is mumble “oh, yes.” But she misinterprets that “yes” as a counter argument and returns fire: “No it’s not! That’s where they live!” Heads turn, again. This film is a nightmare.
Unsurprisingly, things eventually turn out OK in the end for the Friendship Festival and the Mane 6. Lessons are learned; greater bonds forged; many a hearty song sung. When the film’s closing credits appear, I bolt for the exit, as I move imagining the other adults in the room glaring at the back of my head.
My plan to slip in and out of the cinema, incognito, had not been successful. My nerves are shot, but now at last I am free. No more rainbow-coloured unicorns; no more cats with Count Dracula collars; no more telekinetic ponies (a discussion for another time, perhaps). No more feeling like a pariah for purchasing a ticket to My Little Pony. No more having to announce that purchase to the world.
When I’m safely outside and walking down the street, I reach into my pocket. My heart sinks when I realise I left my phone inside the cinema. I stumble back to the box office, talk to a different person behind the desk and explain the situation. They ask what film I saw. “My Little Pony,” I say, in a soft voice. Several people are in the line behind me. “I’m sorry, what film?” they respond. I’m pretty damn sure they heard me the first time.