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Synopsis:

Following the events of the “My Little Pony Movie”, the Cutie Map has expanded to now cover the countries surrounding Equestria. Taking that as an imperative to spread the Equestrian way of friendship beyond Equestria, Twilight Sparkle gets the idea to open an official School of Friendship designed to teach its students how to do so. Princess Celestia endorses the idea but states that Twilight must get approval from the Equestria Education Association (EEA) to formally establish her new school. On presenting her plan to the EEA, the head, Chancellor Neighsay, seems skeptical until he interprets the School of Friendship as a defensive measure designed to teach ponies how to protect Equestria from non-pony nations and grants provisional approval. Twilight opens the school, convincing the reluctant Mane Six members and Starlight Glimmer to become its faculty, but surprises them and everyone else on revealing she has opened it to every creature and has five “international” students: Gallus, a pessimistic and pragmatic griffon; Yona, a prideful and exuberant yak; Ocellus, a shy but intelligent changeling; Silverstream, a perky and energetic hippogriff; and Smolder, a rough and competitive dragon. The school almost immediately runs into trouble when Twilight insists the Mane Six teach according to the EEA guidebook in order to ensure approval; making it impossible for them to teach about friendship. Nevertheless, the five international students, along with a sixth Equestrian student (an easy-going and mellow stallion named Sandbar), manage to hit off a friendship with each other. On Friends and Family Day, the same day Neighsay himself is visiting to evaluate the school for formal approval, the six cut class and end up having fun together by the lake. Unfortunately, it gets out of hand when Ocellus shows off and accidentally turns into a giant monster that damages part of the school. This, in turn, causes Neighsay to lash out on a racial tirade against Twilight for even including international students in the first place right in the faces of their sponsors, causing them to storm off angrily and take their students with them. Neighsay himself, acting on behalf of the EEA, shuts the school down.

Twilight wallows in depression for a time, in spite of the Mane Six’s attempts to cheer her up, until Starlight Glimmer points out that her idea of a School of Friendship was important and valuable and she shouldn’t let the EEA dictate to her about how to “handle friendship”. Taking the message to heart, Twilight decides to reopen the school after agreeing to let the Mane Six run it in the way they see fit. They attempt to bring the international students back, only to find that the students all ran away from their respective homes when the closing of the school threatened to break up their new friendship with each other. In spite of Twilight’s delight that this happened, she soon learns their respective sponsors (Grandpa Gruff, Prince Rutherford, King Thorax, General Seaspray, and Dragonlord Ember) are all blaming each other for their children going missing and are threatening war over it. The Mane Six soon discover that Sandbar has been going around Ponyville getting supplies for a number of individuals and, on realizing he was friends with the international students, they tail him to the Castle of the Two Sisters where the six of them have been hiding out together. Unfortunately, they attract the attention of a gang of Pukwudgies from the Everfree Forest who attack, but the Mane Six arrives and save them just in time–showing off to the group that their teachers can be “cool”. After explaining that the school will be different, the six agree to return with them, and both the students and sponsors meet up as Twilight reopens the school. This prompts Neighsay to reappear, but she announces her intention to keep the school running outside of EEA jurisdiction as it’s the first ever school of friendship and, therefore, subject to its own rules. Princess Celestia supports Twilight’s idea as revolutionary, and Neighsay, still distrustful of non-pony races and now angry at Twilight herself, withdraws. After demoing to the sponsors the new way of running the school, with each teacher now able to govern their own lessons and classrooms, they agree to allow the international students to remain–forming the Student Six.

Review:

In spite of the tie-in and the attempt of the half-season long setup and plot of the previous season, the “Legends of Magic” arc not only seemed to not leave the desired impact but, once it was over, left the series without much of a place to go. Starlight Glimmer, for all of the hate she got (and what I myself had for her), managed to keep the show running by giving it something to do after Season Four seemed to reach a good stopping point, but by the end of Season Six, one of the most lackluster seasons, her arc was mostly over. While Season Seven had a number of great one-shot episodes, especially in the first half of the season, there was still no overall direction for the cast to move in…and especially Twilight Sparkle.

To fix that, a new dynamic was launched in this episode: the idea of the School of Friendship. This introduced a two-fold way of keeping the story going. 1. More obviously, it introduced the Student Six, which offered six new characters to work with and to play stories off of. 2. More importantly, it gave Twilight Sparkle a way to be more proactive while continuing to challenge her.

Of course, there were a lot of ways this could go wrong. Especially with the Student Six. Starlight Glimmer had been only a single new member of the cast and it immediately seemed like she was going to be “Twilight Sparkle 2” to some people, myself included. Introducing six new characters at once seemed like a more brash move than some of the things “The Fairly Oddparents” pulled, especially since six new characters were introduced in the previous season and have had very little to do since then. Not to mention a lot of fans seemed ambivalent toward the School of Friendship itself.

If it had remained simply a ploy to try and extend the life of MLP:FIM, I might have agreed with it. However, after viewing this episode, I think the writers deserve a bit more credit. If this was a ploy to get the series to run longer, they executed it rather well.

Perhaps rather wisely, the Student Six, while playing a big role, don’t “dominate” this episode. Twilight Sparkle, Starlight Glimmer, Spike, and the rest of the Mane Six still play a large part, as does the sub-villain of Chancellor Neighsay. While Twilight is ultimately the focus, it’s nice to have her as the focus on something besides a Twilight Freak Out or fighting a villain. Everyone else is spread out in what seems a bit thin but not them simply being there to “be there”. Perhaps it’s not as big and epic as most two-parters, but I think it works well.

The Student Six themselves are obviously one of the highlights as this serves to introduce them, and I think that works out pretty well too. On initial viewing, I wasn’t too blown away by any of them, but that’s fine: most of their nuances and reasons for affinity would come out in later episodes. This one was meant to show the audience who they were, most of all.

In terms of how much I liked them in their first appearance, Sandbar took home the gold for me. He doesn’t stand out as much as the others, but I appreciated his laid-back attitude, his role as “peacemaker” among the group, and the fact that, frankly, he was another male regular.

For better or for worse, Yona’s personality and size stands out from the group. While I didn’t get it too much from this first episode, and, in fact, I actually disliked how she shared the yak standard of being seemingly a prideful brute, she would end up growing on me after this episode and acting as something of a “peace offering” to me and the yaks in general. This is where the whole idea of “yaks best at everything” stopped seeming so much an egotistical boast as something both more comical as well as more of a self-affirmation and…dare I say it…almost endearing. When Yona runs around saying “yaks best at _______”, it doesn’t seem so much like she’s rubbing her species’ greatness into the faces of everyone as hyping herself up for a new experience; like she’s going to throw herself 110% into whatever she does.

Ocellus placed next for me in this first episode. Her personality is somewhat of a fusion of Fluttershy’s timidity and social awkwardness and Twilight Sparkle’s bookwormishness and intelligence. The result is a new character who doesn’t really seem like a rehash of either, which is good. The idea of the “shy bookworm who’s really smart” is nothing new to children’s animation, but the way MLP:FIM was set up it managed to escape it until now. Twilight Sparkle had the intelligence part down but, as she was the main character, she came off as a bit more of a Hermione Granger type that was more proactive and precocial. Ocellus, on the other hand, has the smarts but no self-confidence unless she’s supported by the Student Six.

An energetic, bubbly, and happy character that contrasts with others around her is always nice, so Silverstream was a good addition to the dynamic, but I couldn’t help but have a bit of an issue with both her and the hippogriffs in general. Obviously, they couldn’t get the voice actors for Queen Novo and Princess Skystar to be full-time cast members, so, along with Tempest Shadow, they’ve been relegated to world of “allusions” rather than ever show up. But in Silverstream’s case, it seems so obvious that they wanted to make Skystar a permanent addition to the cast, they couldn’t because they didn’t want to change her voice actor, and so Silverstream really is “Skystar v.2.0”.

In the initial appearance, who ranked at the bottom was Smolder and Gallus. While eventually the two would be more distinct to me as well as more appealing, they seemed initially like two aggressive and unfriendly individuals, although on watching a second time I see how Smolder is actually more bold and brash while Gallus is more apathetic. Nevertheless, I didn’t have anything necessarily against them either.

However, what really stands out to me in this episode was not the introduction of new characters but the opportunity to see a different side of Equestria not before witnessed. I made the joke after this episode that evil centaurs, dark unicorns, and changeling queens have nothing compared to Twilight’s greatest foe: bureaucracy.

This episode shows that even the princesses don’t enjoy absolute authority in Equestria. Rather, even they are subject to rules from non-princesses in certain spheres; such as education. That’s an interesting concept that helps flesh out how government actually works in Equestria.

Another interesting aspect of this episode, albeit a darker one, is it shows that in spite of being magical ponies in a land of friendship, ponies can still harbor racism. In all fairness, it’s not entirely unfounded. Dragons never liked ponies until Ember came around, and even now they’re still destructive brutes and most of them only ignore ponies because she commands them to. The hippogriffs more or less left Equestria to rot when the Storm King attacked in spite of being historic allies. Griffons in general don’t like anyone, with the show pointing out Greta and (eventually) Gilda are the only two “friendly” griffons. The yaks have better relations now but talking with them is still rocky due to the wide difference in cultural norms. And changelings? I don’t really need to go through why ponies would hate them no matter how cute and innocent they’ve become. Nevertheless, it’s funny to imagine how a country that was founded by apparently forfeiting their racism for friendship still retains quite a bit of it.

In still another interesting turn, when Starlight convinces Twilight to reopen the school, I noticed that most of her rationale and thinking is in line with the “old” Starlight Glimmer. Namely that if you believe your own conviction to be right and worthwhile you should ignore criticism of it and enforce it; even if doing so “breaks the rules”. In the sense of this episode, it’s a good thing…but it’s not all that different from how Starlight ran her old commune. So that makes this another interesting point where Starlight shows her old personality is still very much a big characteristic of her life.

All in all, I thought this was a good episode. It was pretty clear Chancellor Neighsay would return, probably for the finale, and was going to end up being a villain, so it had that element of setup. As for the Student Six, well…similar to Neighsay in this episode, I felt they didn’t really knock me out of the park but they had more personality and interest than the Pillars of Old Equestria ended up having, so I myself gave them my personal “provisional approval”. Unlike other season openers that made me nervous about what could be coming, this one left me interested to see what the show would come up with next.

Fun Facts:

Canonically, this episode takes place after the My Little Pony Movie, placing the film chronologically between Season Seven and Eight although Season Seven was still coming out when the movie premiered in theaters.

The expanded Cutie Map is vaguely in the style of the newer map of the “expanded” Equestria, which actually includes surrounded countries, but is hard to make out.

Chancellor Neighsay is voiced by probably the second-most-famous voice actor ever to appear on the show (after Tara Strong): Maurice Lamarche. While he has done a wide variety of roles over the years, he’s probably most infamous for his signature “Orson Wells” voice which was best applied to Brain from “Pinky and the Brain”. He uses the same voice for Neighsay. In my opinion, he bears some resemblance to Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon series. The portals he makes bear a resemblance to the ones Doctor Strange uses in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only blue instead of orange.

Way back in Season One, the Elements of Harmony were depicted as six regular gems rather than being in their shapes that matched the Cutie Marks of the Mane Six. The shield emblem of the School of Friendship returns them to that appearance; invoking the idea of the Infinity Gems/Stones.

The busts in the lobby of the School of Friendship are of the Pillars of Old Equestria. Appropriate, but one of the only nods that the half-season-long plot of Season Seven would get.

Ember still cringes a bit every time Spike hugs her. 😛 Smolder actually backs off in surprise the first time she sees Ocellus transform.

This marks the first episode where the characters, to be more inclusive in their pronouns, have to change from saying “everypony” to “everyone”. However, this wouldn’t last, and before long they would shift to using “everycreature”.

Interesting voice acting task for Tabitha St. Germain: voice Rarity if she was Ocellus doing an exaggerated parody of Rarity. Angel Bunny doesn’t buy it.

Rarity might be infamous for her drama queen bits, but Twilight comes close burying herself in a pillow fort and actually playing depressing music for herself.

Odd animation choice…freaked out ponies have pupils of asymetrical size in this one.

Far from cheering Twilight up, Angel Bunny seems to contract Twilight’s depression. 😛

The “confetti cannons for everycreature” are all color-coded to match the girls and Spike.

Pharynx makes a brief cameo when Fluttershy visits the Changelings.

The Canterlot throne room has been redone to match its appearance in the “My Little Pony Movie”; including the blue interior and two thrones of equal stature for both Celestia and Luna. While there’s a carpet extended over it, you can also make out the symbol on the floor where Tempest Shadow put the four captured princesses around the Staff of Soconus.

At one point, Ocellus turns into a bugbear from “Slice of Life”.

Pukwudgies are creatures from North American folklore and are similar to the idea of European goblins. However, the pukwudgies in this episode share more in common with the Krites from the “Critters” B-horror-movie franchise, especially in how they move and fire needle-like quills.

Confirming Rainbow Dash’s fears, Gallus had indeed nicknamed her “Professor Egghead”. (He also made fun of her in a picture.)

Rainbow Dash says the school will be “220% cooler”; a nod back to her infamous “20% cooler” line from the first season.

When Fluttershy tosses the EEA handbook over her shoulder, she hits a random pukwudgie.

The bit where Chancellor Neighsay says “And none shall pass!” and slams his hoof down, creating a magic shockwave, is a nod to Gandalf’s infamous line while confronting the Balrog in “The Fellowship of the Ring”.

Twilight Sparkle’s rulebook is about three times the size of the EEA one…naturally. 😛

Did Applejack and Rainbow Dash…invite the students to go drinking with them? O_o

Did Angel Bunny become a student? Well, he needs the lessons.

“Friendship Always Wins” appears to temporarily suspend reality…as it allows the Mane Six and Student Six to do a whole musical number about the new school while the guardians of the international students never move anywhere.

Rating:

4 Stars out of 5