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Synopsis:

While conducting royal business, Princess Celestia receives word that the Crystal Empire has returned, an empire which “reflects” the nature of Equestria through the emotions its filled with. If love and goodness, that echoes throughout Equestria. If darkness and evil, that too. It was conquered by a dark unicorn named King Sombra a thousand years ago, who was defeated by Celestia and Luna and became shadow, but not before he cursed the empire to vanish. Now, 1,000 years later, Celestia summons Twilight Sparkle to find a way to protect the empire from evil. She informs her that this is a “test”, and that ultimately she and she alone must be the one who succeeds, although Celestia has sent Shining Armor and Cadance ahead of her and allows her to bring Spike and her friends. On arrival at the Crystal Empire, it turns out that King Sombra has also revived and is slowly gaining enough power to take physical form, and he’s cursed Shining Armor’s horn to prevent him from using his shield. That leaves Cadance, who can’t sleep or rest for a moment and is weakening rapidly. The Mane Six search the kingdom looking for a way to protect it, but find the citizens were so badly impacted by Sombra that they’ve lost all hope and happiness inside them, even the memory of it. Finally, within a library, Twilight Sparkle finds out the kingdom was protected by a special festival that called on the love and goodness of the citizens and transformed their power to protect the empire. The Mane Six quickly put one together following the tradition of the book. Twilight also reads mention of a “Crystal Heart” being at the center, so she carves one out of a gem and places it in the center of town. As the fair begins, and the crystal ponies begin to feel hopeful and happy again, they remember the time before Sombra, and in doing so they reveal that the Crystal Heart is an actual object that King Sombra stole and hid from them to guarantee his rule, and that the heart is what is actually charged with their power and not the positive feelings themselves.

With Sombra gaining power and Cadance weakening, Twilight Sparkle tells the girls to keep the fair going while she goes to find the heart. Spike insists on coming although Twilight orders him not to help her. Through clever use of magic, Twilight manages to bypass Sombra’s illusions and eventually finds the Crystal Heart in the highest spire of the castle. As the shield breaks down and Sombra moves in, Twilight Sparkle manages to throw the Crystal Heart clear of a magical prison that was guarding it, but can’t get herself out. Although it means “failing the test”, rather than risk Sombra attacking the ponies and her friends while she tries to escape, Twilight tells Spike to take the heart down. Spike stumbles and drops the heart on the way down, but Cadance manages to grab the falling heart (due to literally being thrown at it by Shining Armor) before Sombra can, rallies the crystal ponies, and uses their power to destroy Sombra for good. Shining Armor and Princess Cadance become the new rulers of the Crystal Empire, Spike is immortalized on the walls of the Canterlot Palace for bringing the heart to Cadance, and Twilight glumly returns, expecting the worst for failing the test. However, Celestia informs her the test was to see if she was willing to sacrifice her own welfare and betterment for the sake of others, and she passed. The Mane Six return happily to Canterlot, while Luna makes a mysterious “starry” book appear and writes something in it along with Celestia…

Review:

Remember how I said that Season Three’s opening was better than Season Two’s finale? That only meant that Season Two’s finale was worse than Season Three’s opening…not that the Season Three opening was “good”.

This was the episode where I officially joined the fandom, and more of the “curmudgeony” bronies began to say that the show had “lost its spark”. It was groundbreaking in a lot of ways animation-wise, not to mention began to set up the ultimately “plot-changing” season finale. But, aside from that, it’s overwhelmingly ho-hum.

It has all the feel of the show-makers trying to “recapture the magic” of the first episode. Both the Season Two premiere and finale were, to be honest, rather dark. There was little funny in them, even when they tried to be. This episode tries to be a lot more fun. Rather than use the Mane Six as “placeholders”, which they were in Season Two’s finale, they tried to actually give them some personality interjections and some funny moments, like Pinkie Pie as a pony ninja and in a full-body Fluttershy costume, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy’s jousting, and Rarity’s antics pretty much throughout the entire episode. They try to make it a drama as well, and don’t run into the problem of the constant plot holes that Season Two had. Shining Armor and Princess Cadance return, which I thought was a good move. When Luna first appeared as Nightmare Moon, she ended up being pretty much a “plot device” character until the second season. I appreciate that this episode tried to flesh them out a bit more. Only a very little bit, mind you…but at least they weren’t there just to have a royal couple. Princess Cadance’s cutie mark even foreshadows she was destined to become the ruler of the Crystal Empire. King Sombra was clearly inspired by a popular fantasy villain, and was no doubt an attempt to make the most malevolent villain yet.

So with a formula like that, what could go wrong?

A lot, apparently.

A lot in this episode “just doesn’t click”. The whole episode has the feeling of “trying too hard”, and I’m pretty sure the reason why is the reason for a lot of “badness” in this season as a whole: “Equestria Girls”. Not only was this the first “half-season”, but a lot of the episodes look “rushed”…as if a bit more polish could have made them possibly the best episodes of the series and instead they were left with “good enough” conditions. This episode is no exception.

For the first time in the series, the jokes made me go “…Huh?”. There were a few scenes done for laughs that just plain don’t work at all. They aren’t funny by themselves and they aren’t “wacky” enough to be funny for being off the wall.

The music is weak in this episode. Technically, it was weak as early as Season Two’s finale. It’s just most people don’t notice that because they only remember “This Day Aria”, which was good, from that episode. The music is still mostly trying for a “musical” vibe…but the parts of musicals where a single character is off sitting by a pond or leaning on a tree and sighing deeply and singing to themselves as opposed to the big ensemble numbers or “ones people remember”. And, frankly, I hate it when Twilight sings, because all of her songs are the same thing: self-doubt and worry. You’ve heard one you’ve heard all of them, and they’re all weak.

In yet another “Trollestia” moment, Celestia purposely orders Twilight to do something that she says she has to do…with the intent that Twilight would eventually be forced not to do it. I mean…well, first of all, it means Celestia must be able to predict the future to a degree because she knew Twilight would eventually be in a situation where she would have to choose between “failing the test” or saving the empire. If so…that doesn’t explain the Season Two finale at all, which McCarthy also wrote (again plot-holing herself), because she would have known about the changeling plan in advance. It also would make me kind of infuriated that the events of this entire episode were just a twisted, trolling, mind-bleep. Twilight wouldn’t have even hesitated to pass the Crystal Heart off to Spike if not for the fact that Celestia had planted the idea in her head that “you’ll fail if you do that”. There had to have been some better way to do an episode about the importance of sacrifice than a “Trollestia” moment…and that’s the biggest sin plotwise in this episode.

Also, in spite of the Mane Six getting more “face time”, they’re still ultimately useless as all of the crystal ponies get fearful and sad again when Sombra reappears…just for “the-character-designed-to-be-loved” to pop down, tell them all to “be happy”, and then they revert again and succeed. Meaning the girls’ efforts were for nothing. The festival apparently isn’t even really necessary.

Finally…King Sombra just totally pales in comparison to Chrysalis. There’s something to be said about using “Generic Doomsday Villains” who are all out simply “For The Evils”, because they’re such pale facsimiles you can do whatever you want with them, even in a Y-rated show. But King Sombra is just plain boring. He comes off more as a mindless animal than a sentient, malevolent, cunning, and “real” threat like Chrysalis or Discord were, and his lack of charisma (mostly defined by his appearance as his character) make him pathetic even in comparison to Nightmare Moon. The fans were blown away by Chrysalis and expected something even better, and they got…”MY CRYSTAL!” and shadows. Just as Chrysalis’ presence made the Season Two finale seem better than it was, King Sombra made the Season Three premiere seem weaker than it was…although it was still quite weak.

The entire episode, therefore, has sort of a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” vs. “The Mummy” effect going on. Most people would argue that the remake of “The Mummy” was less about remaking the original Mummy and more about “remaking” Raiders of the Lost Ark, trying to recover that vibe. And in spite of “doing everything in the playbook”, it just didn’t work. The same with “The Crystal Empire”.

Fun Facts:

An official “Map of Equestria” was released this season. It’s laid out similar to North America, being a large block of land with an ocean spanning both sides. The map was not released to “scale”, meaning that the only thing it really says is where everything is in relation to everything else, but here’s a description…

-Starting at the Northwest corner of the map are two cities on either side of a river that have not yet been mentioned on the show: Vanhoover (obviously a parody of Vancouver) and Tall Tale (depending on the pronunciation, it may be a take off of Seattle, as the placement near Vancouver seems to indicate that). Moving east from there is a mountain range called the Unicorn Range which spreads far to the southeast and seems to be similar to the Rocky Mountains, as well as a railway that has a three way junction. One branch goes to Ponyville via Canterlot while the other goes to Vanhoover and Tall Tale, and the third is sandwiched between the Unicorn Range and an area called the Galloping Gorge which goes Northeast to the icy, mountainous area called the Frozen North, obviously the Equestrian equivalent of the Arctic. Toward the center of the map, just south of the Frozen North, is the Crystal Empire. (It’s likely actually a part of at least the southern portion of the Frozen North, as the show has made it clear that the Crystal Empire is magically kept warm.) Further east of the Crystal Empire are the Crystal Mountains, which stretch all the way to the Northeast.

-Going back to Galloping Gorge, proceeding directly east from there is Cloudsdale. Northeast of Cloudsdale is the Crystal Empire, while Southeast is the last and highest mountain of the Unicorn Range, on which Canterlot is built. (Note that this placement is similar to that of Minas Tirith in “The Lord of the Rings”.) All rails seem to meet here, which makes sense because Equestria is effectively divided into two “halves”, north and south, by mountain ranges, and only the passes near Canterlot and the tunnels made through it for rails allow transit between Northern and Southern Equestria. Directly east of Canterlot after a narrow pass is another mountain range, starting with Foal Mountain. A rail going northeast from Canterlot goes north of this before turning east, at which point the northern boundary is Neighagra Falls (obviously a takeoff of Niagra Falls). If the tracks keep going, they eventually split and go through the eastern mountain range, with the southern branch going to a town called Hollow Shades, and the branch that goes directly east eventually ends up in the city of Manehattan on the coast

-(Similar to the Boswash area of a map of the USA…) If you follow the coast south you eventually reach Filly Delphia (which has an icon for a Liberty Bell knockoff), which is directly east of Canterlot and has a rail going straight there. Further south, or east by southeast of Canterlot, is Baltimare, also which has a rail going to it. On the other side of a river is a bay called Horseshoe Bay (a knockoff of Chesapeake Bay, most likely), and to the south and southwest of that is the Hayseed Swamps (possibly a knockoff of the Everglades). As a further note, on the ocean east of Filly Delphia and Baltimare is a sign that says “Yonder to Griffons”, and at the southeast corner of the map, past the Hayseed Swamps, is an arrow pointing off the map that says “Dragons Be Here”. (This might indicate where dragons and griffons come from, but…is likely just a nod to the map from “The Hobbit”. :P)

-Going all the way back to Tall Tale, southeast of that is Smokey Mountain (obviously a takeoff of the Smoky Mountains, but an odd place for it as the Smoky Mountains are in a different range from the Rockies). Another train track from Canterlot, going west by northwest, seems to reach this place. Following the coast down eventually one sees the end of a track that splits off and goes south from the track going to Smokey Mountain, and this goes to a forest area called White Tail Woods. From there it turns directly south and follows the coast to Los Pegasus. As the name implies, this town appears to be set in the clouds, similar to Cloudsdale, meaning it’s probably exclusively pegasus.  Furthermore, there is an “Applewood” sign (knockoff of “Hollywood”), indicating that if there are movie stars in Equestria, this is where you find them. A path (not a rail) that extends from central Equestria comes here, and across the path further south and southeast is the San Palomino Desert, which stretches all the way to a river cutting through to the south for a large expanse.

-Returning to Canterlot, directly south of it is a gathering of water called Saddle Lake, while just southwest of it is Ponyville, and southeast of that is the Everfree Forest. The rail from Canterlot branches on the southwest edge of town, with one branch going northwest to Smokey Mountain, White Tail Woods, and eventually reaching Los Pegasus, and the other branch going south around the Everfree Forest, across a bridge, and eventually across Ghastly Gorge (which was featured in “May the Best Pet Win!”). There is a town Northeast of the crossing point, near where the river running through the Everfree Forest drops into the gorge, called Bogg, which appears to be halfway in the Everfree Forest. (This is likely the place where Applejack and Apple Bloom delivered the pies in “Somepony to Watch Over Me” in Season Four.) Following the rail it eventually splits and goes south and east. The south branch goes to Appleloosa and eventually into more mountains called the Macintosh Hills before going off the map. The east branch goes to Dodge City (where Applejack went to work for “Over a Barrel”). The Macintosh Hills curl up and to the northwest, then curl around until they border the Hayseed Swamps. Contained within that area (again, similar to how Mordor is contained in “Lord of the Rings”), is the Badlands.

Finally, to finish up, east of Ponyville and through and “arm” of the Everfree Forest is Rambling Rock Ridge. South of there across the river going through the forest is an area referred to as “Ruins”, but was likely renamed in Season Four as “the Castle of the Two Sisters”. There’s a path going through Rambling Rock Ridge southeast that goes through the Badlands at a narrow junction break in the Macintosh Hills (again, alluding to Mordor).

(NOTE: It would seem that Chrysalis and the changelings would have ended up in the Badlands, but the writers of the IDW comic “extended” the map I just described further south, showing that the Macintosh Hills are just the start of the much larger Appleloosan Mountain Range, which makes the southern border of Equestria, and then the forest of Leota is beyond it (where the changelings rebuilt). They actually wrote a rather extensive “extension” to the map in the second issue of the series, but I won’t be going into it at this time as that’s outside the realm of the TV series.)

The “style” of the animation had undergone another change in this season, relying on more things like panning-around shots and “dramatic-looking” sequences with manes blowing and the like. It also used a lot more shadow and light.

Luna appears again, but practically as a cameo, just like at the end of Season Two. It seems the writers never did figure out how to make her “star alongside Celestia”.

Apparently, Shining Armor and Princess Cadance were at Princess Celestia’s “beck and call” for a while too. 😛 At any rate, the only episode where we see Celestia actually writing her summons to Twilight Sparkle.

Twilight is apparently back to being neurotic. 😛

One of the more “rarely-seen” windows in the Canterlot Palace, the one that features Shining Armor and Princess Cadance forming a heart shape to defeat the changelings, is in this episode.

As I mentioned earlier, Season Four had the credit for the show’s first “overarching” plot, but the fact is other seasons did too. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna’s conversation alludes to the fact that they’re believing Twilight Sparkle will become an alicorn herself, along with the book that Luna makes appear at the very end.

This episode is very inspired by “Lord of the Rings” or the Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Especially the villain: King Sombra, who is described as having been destroyed by Celestia and Luna only to become “shadow”, similar to what happened to Sauron after the One Ring was cut from his hand.  During the brief flashback to his reign, the score is similar to the music played when Mordor is shown in the LOTR movies. King Sombra himself seems to be a living shadow with “eyes”, similar to the idea of the Shadow and Eye of Sauron. In another nod to the series that’s lesser known, fans of the books of LOTR know that Sauron’s debateably greatest power lies not in his hoards of orcs and corrupted men, but in his ability to drive men into despair and fear so that they don’t even make a stand against him. Hence repeated calls by Gandalf the White: “Do not give into fear!” This episode is similar to that in many regards in that the main “antagonist” is to keep the ponies from the Crystal Empire from giving into despair and fear.

I always thought it was kind of shocking that Celestia knows “dark magic”, and inadvertently teaches Twilight the same through demonstration.

The Crystal Empire is located at the equivalent of the North Pole of Equestria. Apparently, ponies can survive with ease in any type of climate. 🙂 Yes, I know the Crystal Empire itself is warmer and sunnier, but the land surrounding it isn’t, and unless ponies lose 90% of their body heat through their necks, scarfs don’t really make a difference.

Fluttershy is so nervous about flying she doesn’t even fly to escape King Sombra.

“One of these days we need to get together when the fate of Equestria isn’t hanging in the balance.” That wouldn’t happen until Season Four’s “Three’s A Crowd”. (“Games Ponies Play” doesn’t really count, as they were still “on business”.)

The Crystal Ponies are effectively the “fourth race” of ponies in Equestria. They’re similar to Earth Ponies except the watermarks on their eyes are crystals and they actually are semi-transparent with a “crystal sheen” to their manes and coats.

The depressed Crystal Ponies sound exactly like Maud Pie from Season Four. 😛

The Griffon statues in front of the Crystal Empire library may be an allusion to the library in New York City, which has lions.

I buy into the background involving the Crystal Heart…but it never really explains why the heart “failed” the first time, when King Sombra took over. Also…the heart apparently does nothing against demon centaurs. 😛

Being the intelligent adult that I am, it was pretty clear as soon as Twilight opened that one door she was in an illusionary world. Still…I compliment the animators for “trying a bit harder” to “fool the audience” by having the return from commercial break zoom in on Canterlot from a distance.

Spike technically “helped” before the ending…snapping Twilight out of the illusion.

The whole time the Crystal Heart was just on top of the palace. 😐 Apparently King Sombra liked taking a “scenic route” to look at it.

Technically, it was Shining Armor and Princess Cadance who saved the day…again. All Spike did was pretty much carry the Crystal Heart 100 feet and then dropped it. Seriously…there’s really no reason for him to become the “Hero of the Crystal Empire” as he did in Season Four. Twilight Sparkle did a lot more toward getting it, including throwing it clear of Sombra’s “alarm system”.

Plot hole for this episode: Why didn’t Celestia and Luna just defeat Sombra again? Luna even offered to go to the Crystal Empire…but it seems Celestia preferred to risk the ponies there for Twilight’s test. 😛

Whereas before in Season Two you could “kind of” see a “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” vibe…in this episode its far more clear. After all, Queen Serenity rules a “crystal empire”, derives her power from her husband Endymion, fights villains who are little more than “big evil shadows”, and uses the power of love magnified in a crystal to destroy them in flashes of light. Sound familiar?

Rating:

2.5 Stars out of 5

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