An Overthought Review of MLP:FIM Season 2, Episode 21
Note: This review is entirely subjective and only my personal reaction to the episode.
0:00-1:00: Fluttershy is doing that same thing that babies do when you try to put them in car seats.
Okay, this is probably my favorite scene in the episode, for a lot of reasons. It's good setup for the rest of the episode as it establishes that the dragon migration is taking place, and does so in a highly entertaining manner. It's pretty evident here that Iron Will's assertiveness training at least partly stuck with Fluttershy, and it's a nice little character moment that Rainbow Dash went to see the butterfly migration with her. Not to mention that her jump through the window is reminiscent of the famous "yay" and "I'm so angry I could just scream" jokes from the first season. It's slapsticky and fun, and manages to actually be relevant to the episode. It just has a nice little charm to it.
1:35-4:07: Green and brown camouflage doesn't work when the grass is purple...
Apparently none of the other ponies in town really feel like coming out to watch the dragon migration. Although given how prone to panic the town is, this isn't really surprising. Nor is the fact that Twilight dragged everyone out way earlier than she need to. It's a bit odd that Rarity makes such an enormous spectacle out of her arrival (especially when no one but her friends are present), but it wouldn't be the first time that she's been a drama queen. And one thinks about it, her dress actually blends into the surroundings better than the other ponies camo does.
The dragons themselves are pretty cool; there's a lot more variety in the designs than in previous seasons. Not to mention that they really create a nice counterpoint to Spike; even though they pass by quickly, it's evident that Rainbow Dash hit the nail on the head. Fierce is a perfectly appropriate word here. (It's also good that the little gag with RD getting toasted actually helps show off what dragons are like) It sets things up so we get a maximum amount of contrast when Spike shows up.
I realize that the ponies are being a bit hard on Spike here, but the way this scene is set up makes it pretty understandable. They're watching a hoard of huge, threatening, adult dragon headbutting each other and shooting flames and stuff, and then Spike shows up in a pink heart apron with tea and cookies. I can't really blame them for having a chuckle at that. It also helps a fair deal that their teasing is pretty good natured, RD is probably the harshest, and Rarity calls her out on that almost immediately (I'm loving the RD/Rarity dynamic in this episode, by the way). It's entirely evident that the ponies care about him a lot, even if they do tease him.
Of course, they then go too far in the other direction, basically overemphasizing how un-dragonlike Spike is. While it's obviously supposed to be meant as a compliment, it's still easy to see how it could cause Spike to have an identity crisis. There's a nice two-sidedness to everything; you can easily see how Rarity means well by going on about how cute he is, and also why Spike is a bit embarrassed by it and realizes that he doesn't really act like a dragon. It shows both that the ponies view Spike as "one of their own" and explains why Spike isn't happy about it. Although part of it might have to do with the fact that Spike is also being treated more like a child than he is a lot of the time (which he is, after all). In any case, his reaction is understandable.
4:07-7:20: Identity Crisis
Let's face it, Spike has a pretty decent reason to have issues about stuff like this, being the only dragon in the town, and the only dragon shown in the show so far that wasn't a jerk of some sort. You can hardly blame him for wondering how on earth he ended up in Ponyville. I have to admit that it comes on a bit strong, and the way he bursts into tears so quickly is a bit melodramatic, but I can't exactly blame him for that given the circumstances.
What's nice about this scene is that we really get some more insight into Twilight and Spike's relationship. We saw a bit of it in "Owl's Well That Ends Well" and "Lesson Zero", but this really makes the most of the fact that Twilight is basically Spike's big sister/mother figure. She thinks nothing of staying up all night going through every book in the library if she thinks that it'll help him feel better or help him out.
Of course, the result is merely that she discovers the hard way that ponies know next to nothing about dragons other than "a bunch of them fly past here every generation". Apparently they don't show up in Equestria very often which makes it a bit more aggravating that we never get an explanation of where Celestia got Spike's egg. It's also a bit odd that Twilight never thinks of contacting Celestia, although it sorta makes sense as she wouldn't want to send a letter in the middle of the night, and Spike leaves first thing in the morning, which means she never really got a chance. You'd think she'd at least have tossed the idea out there, or suggested that they go ask Zecora or something.
But in any case, Spike's decision to join the dragon migration doesn't come totally out of left field (like RD and Rarity's entrance does), and you have to give Twilight credit for letting Spike go through with it. Although you can't really blame Rarity and Rainbow Dash for trying to stop him either given that he is just a kid. It really does show that they don't want to see him do something stupid and get himself hurt; they care about his well being. Which explains why Twilight and the other ponies decide to follow him. You can hardly blame them, given that he's basically Twilight's kid. In fact, I'd say that they're fairly justified in following Spike; it's like if your elementary school kid was going to go hang out with a bunch of high school kids with a less than stellar reputation.
Really, the idea of joining the migration is pretty ridiculous, given that it appears to be almost entirely adult dragons, and Spike has probably never had to live on his own before. The fact that Twilight lets him go at all is actually pretty impressive. Although even that makes sense as she's the only pony there who saw his breakdown; Rarity and RD don't know how bad he's feeling and are less inclined to give it a shot. She knows how important this is to him, which is why she probably she doesn't let him know that she's coming along.
And on a last note, it establishes that they're fully expecting Spike to come back, and Spike knows it. That'll come into play later. Also, their faces at the end of the scene are hilarious.
7:20-8:05: On the road again.
This is basically a travel montage of Spike's travels. There are a couple of nice jokes here, as well as a completely out of the blue cameo from Cranky Doodle Donkey. It also shows the phoenixes, which establishes both that Spike is pretty far from home, and that there are phoenixes in the area, which becomes important later. Spike's beard also shows that he's been going for quite a while.
8:05-15:34: Here be dragons!
Okay, I get that Rarity usually focuses on fashion and not costumes, but that dragon costume is just hilariously bad. Although considering that she apparently had to throw it together in a rush it isn't too bad. The dragon teenagers are basically established as kinda being jerks right off the bat; as their first interaction with Spike is basically making fun of him. The entire scene is largely reminiscent of high-school-esque bullying. Granted, the teenage dragons don't seem to be entirely nasty. They're abrasive, but they do give Spike several opportunities to prove himself, and when he does, they're actually relatively civil to him.
I do think that the whole "testing" process goes a bit longer than it needs to. The only test that's really relevant is the last one; when he "succeeds" he's accepted by the group. All of the other ones seem to go a bit too long, although they do serve other purposes. The belching contest confirms at least that the dragons (or at least the teenage ones) aren't really subjects to Celestia, and gives Twilight a bit more of a reason to get personally involved. It isn't really necessary to the episode, but it adds a bit of color to the setting. It also proves that Rarity's costume is inexplicably flame-proof. Not to mention that the whole "he's friends with a pony princess!" thing is almost certainly a nod to the adult fanbase. Although I think it's a bit weird that they make such thing of the letter when it never gets brought up again; I can't be the only person who expected Celestia to show up at the end of the episode.
The tail wrestling thing is even less relevant, although it gives us the scene of Spike trying to wrestle with the ponies in the dragon costume. The image is way more amusing than it has any right to be. Also, Crackle is pretty hilarious looking, although he (she?) looks a bit like it's from a different show. That's true of most of the dragons, actually; they look like they're from a totally different cartoon.
King of the Hoard is fun to watch, but is basically totally pointless from a plot perspective. It's kinda cool to see that Spike actually manages to pull it off, although he had unwilling help from the ponies and his victory was mostly luck. But even so, it doesn't really affect the plot at all; you could chop out this entire challenge (and a fairly big chunk of the first two as well), without changing the overarching plot at all. That's the main flaw in this scene; there's a bit too much of Spike just sort of hanging around with the teenage dragon and not enough interaction with the ponies. It's interesting to see Spike interacting with other dragons, but most of these interactions are a bit repetitive until we get to the final challenge.
The lava cannonball is the only challenge that ends up really mattering because it's what causes the other dragons to accept Spike. It also proves that dragons are pretty much heat-proof, and that Spike must be pretty tough to belly-flop into lava. A belly flop into water is painful, so one into molten rock must really hurt. Once he does this, he actually manages to earn the grudging response of the other dragons. It also shows his toughness in that he works up the courage to jump off the ledge on his own.
The following scene where Spike is initiated actually helps a fair deal in making the dragons feel more well rounded; I was almost certain that they were going to use it as an excuse to just mess with him more, but the fact that they're actually nice to him afterward shows that they aren't complete jerks, they're just very very abrasive. It's good to see them actually treating Spike kinda like an equal for a little bit; the lead dragon is almost affectionate towards him in a rough-around-the-edges-big-brother sort of way.
There was also a good point somebody made about the dragons on the Tvtropes forum: they may seem like big jerks but given that 1. they have a natural predilection to greed and anger and 2. there aren't any adults around to curb their behavior, it's actually kinda miraculous that they're as nice as they are and didn't devolve into a dragon version of Lord of the Flies. Especially as adult dragons seem to be more or less solitary; they probably just have a tougher social system. In that context, it's actually pretty cool that they accepted him. In any case, he felt welcome enough that he considered staying. I'm not sure how strong this consideration was (he probably would have gotten homesick fairly quickly), but it's there, and the ponies seem to think that he might be serious.
The idea behind the scene of Spike getting partially integrated and feeling kinda at home with the dragons is a good one, but the scenes of him trying to prove himself drag a bit; the teenage dragons are amusing, but they can't really carry the scene like the established characters can. The main issue is that each challenge basically carries the same type of interaction with Spike; there are 4 tests, but only the first and last feature new interaction. The 2nd and 3rd tests don't really give us much more info about Spike or the other dragons; they're just amusing to watch and that's about it. The scene loses some of the momentum that the episode has by lagging so long on Spike trying to ingratiate himself. I think it would have worked a bit better if they had shortened dedicated a bit more of the time to showing Spike getting along with the other dragons. It would make his choice with the phoenix egg in the next scene a lot more dramatic if it felt like he was really at home with the other dragons. As is, he's only really in with them for about one scene, which doesn't feel long enough.
As noted, I wish we got a bit more of Spike being "at home" with the dragons, because his newfound sense of self gets tested way too quickly; there's barely a scene in between the time he's forced to choose between the dragons and the ponies, and while it' rather obviously a foregone conclusion that he's going to side with the ponies, there isn't nearly as much tension as there could be. It's even more dead obvious than it would have been otherwise because Spike hasn't really been ingratiated enough with the Dragons for staying with them to be a viable option for him; he's only been with them for like a day, and a good chunk of that was spent trying to prove himself. He never really gets any time to build up any sort of social interaction with the other dragons; if he had, there would have been more substance to the scene where he has to choose whether or not to smash the egg.
Of course, when the dragons reveal their plan to steal and/or destroy the phoenix eggs it's immediately obvious that they haven't entirely redeemed themselves; that kind of wanton destruction of a sentient species' eggs is obviously bad. It's been pointed out that phoenix eggs might share the regeneration ability of their parents, and thus the dragons weren't really hurting them. It's an interesting idea, but we have no idea if they do have that ability, and there's no indication that the dragons are aware of it (Fluttershy didn't, and you'd expect her to be on top of something like that), so they're still jerks. Again, it makes sense that they're jerks given the circumstances, but still.
Also, Rainbow Dash's attempt to fly while wearing the costume is amusing.
16:52-20:50: Look out for that tree!
First off, the animators did a cool little thing with the phoenixes here to make them stand out more: they aren't drawn with outlines. They did the same thing with Philomena in the first season, but that wasn't as noticeable because she only was drawn that way at the very end of the episode. They definitely stand out as a result.
The main draw of this scene is the slapstick; the sequence of the dragons attacking the phoenixes is classic physical humor. It's also quite satisfying to see the phoenix totally own the dragons. In particular the gag where they crash into the tree is a nice one. The main plot point of this scene is Spike's refusal to smash the egg. As earlier noted, it's pretty obvious which way he's going to go because he really hasn't been around the dragons long enough to really choose to stay, but it is good that he makes the decision purely on his own. Watching the scene, I was a bit afraid that the ponies would interrupt and tell him not to do it, but the fact that Spike chooses for himself here really helps. He makes the decision to reject the other dragons all by himself, which is a great moment for his character. Even if he does stick with the ponies, he's doing it because he wants to, not because he needs to.
Of course, that doesn't change the fact that he needs the ponies for backup when the dragons turn on him, and he looks genuinely relieved to see them. Their boxing poses are a bit awkward-looking, but it doesn't really matter. The important thing is that they're dead set on making sure that Spike is okay. In particular, Rarity's threat is pretty awesome. It's over the top, but you can tell that she's utterly pissed and has every intention of standing up for Spike. It's a bit odd that they run away rather than stand and fight when they could probably win, but then again as soon as Spike runs they have no reason to stay, and they have no real motivation to stay and fight when they don't have to. It's also good that this time Twilight actually remembers that she's capable of teleporting like she did when she encountered the hydra in "Feeling Pinkie Keen". Although it's balanced out in that she has to struggle for a bit to get it to work properly and is visibly exhausted afterward.
When they finally escape the forest, there's a nice moment where Spike finally realizes how much the ponies care about him. It's nice to see him make that realization after how he responded to them earlier in the episode.
20:50-21:28: Egg abduction.
Spike's letter to Celestia is pretty much what you'd expect from an episode like this; in terms of applicability it's essentially an adoption episode: your biological origin isn't as important family and friends that care about you. I can't say it's personally applicable, but I think it's a good lesson to have out there. And it does give a sense of closure to Spike's relationship with the ponies; they are, for all intents and purposes, his family. It's also really neat to see the set of photos of him just hanging out with the cast, with a nice call back to "Sweet and Elite" thrown in where he's been effectively photoshopped in.
He also gets sort of "validated" as a cast member with getting his own pet: a phoenix. This is cool both because it gives him additional commonality with the rest of the cast (they all have pets now), and in a bit of overanalysis, it gives Spike a companion that actually has a comparable lifespan; it's not pleasant to think about, but Spike has a way longer lifespan than the ponies do, so it's a bit comforting for him to have a pet that will live as long as he will.
Of course, there's also the question of exactly how he obtained Peewee (hopefully he'll get a bit of help with the name, which will probably be obsolete pretty quickly), which was essentially by abduction. Although in Spike's defense, the phoenixes didn't even seem to notice that the egg was missing, and Spike is probably unable to return the egg anyway, because of all the dragons and because he probably has no clue where the nest was. In that case, taking care of the baby is probably the most responsible thing to do.
Okay, overall I think this episode was pretty good, but there were a couple things that bugged me. The big one is that it didn't focus nearly as much on Spike's relationship with the ponies as I had hoped; there was definitely some in there, but the episode is largely dominated by the teenage dragons, who aren't really as interesting as the main cast. They were amusing, but there was really no way to build a deep interaction with them. As both of Spike's previous episodes basically featured him going off on his own in various ways, I would have liked to see a bit more of how he acts on a day to day basis within the town, or at least see how he feels about his role in the ensemble. But that's largely a personal preference thing. The only actual criticism I can make is that I wish there would have been a bit more Spike/Pony interaction.
The other thing that bugs me is that it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. We never find out where Celestia got Spike's egg from, and we don't learn a whole lot of about dragons other than that they have a migration, and that they're fireproof. We never really see what dragon society as a whole is really like outside of the isolated glimpse of a handful of teenage dragons. The other issue this causes is that on the whole, dragons are shown to be less than stellar; outside of Spike (who has his greed issues) pretty much every dragon we've seen in the show so far has been kind of a jerk. Granted, we don't really have a big sample. Of the two adults, one was just cranky and ended up listening when confronted by Fluttershy, and the dragons in this episode are teenagers, so you can't really be too hard on them. Throw in what I mentioned above about dragons being mostly solitary and society being basically unregulated and it doesn't come across too badly. But still, it would have been nice to have seen at least one dragon who was just nice right off the bat; just for the sake of seeing a bit of variety in the dragon characters. As is, they all act fairly similar, which makes them less interesting than they could have been.
On the plus side, this episode had some great animation (as usual), and they really went all-out with the soundtrack. I especially liked the heavy-metalesque guitars in the background during the dragon sections. It really helps set the tone of the scenes and gives the soundtrack more variety. They're going the extra mile to make the episode more interesting.
In the end, the episode is pretty good, but it leaves a lot unanswered, and it spends too much time on the teenage dragon antics. It's not a bad episode by any means, but it doesn't have any especially awesome stand-out moments either. It might just be a personal preference thing (I want more Spike interaction with the ponies), but I just felt like it could have focused more on more interesting aspects of Spike's character.
- The BGM is top notch, as is the animation
- The character designs for the dragons are cool
- We get some pretty cool world-building with the phoenixes
- What we see of Spike's interaction with the ponies is really interesting and well-handled
- The section with the teen dragons testing Spike goes for longer than it needed to and doesn't spend enough time giving him meaningful interaction with them
- The episode doesn't answer a whole lot of questions about Spike's history or dragon culture
- There isn't a lot of variety in the dragon characters' personalities
- We don't see as much of Spike's interaction with the ponies as one would hope