To most of the public, the name Brad Bird meant relatively little for many years…but for those who were animation followers, his name meant quite a bit. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, Brad served as an animation consultant on The Simpsons for almost 9 years, and some feel that his input made many of the episodes during his tenure, the most memorable. He also had a consulting hand in the animated series, The Critic.
The 1990’s would also function as a new era of animation, when other studios began to try and get in on the moneymaking action that 1994’s The Lion King seemed to promise. Warner Brothers was developing several features, and Brad was brought aboard for their second one. In 1999, Warner Brothers released an animated adaptation of The Iron Giant, based on the Ted Hughes story of the same name. Like every project he works on, Brad and his associates charged head-first into the story, giving us relatable characters, and emotional moments. Sadly, when it came to promoting such features, the WB promotional department did a poor job, and the film lived and died in a matter of weeks in August of 1999.
Luckily, Brad had friends from his days at CalArts (aka The California Institute of the Arts) who also valued the same things he did…and one of them, was John Lasseter. Shortly after Giant, John talked with Brad about possibly coming up to PIXAR to not only shake things up a little, but to bring any of his pet projects to life. It was here, that Brad started relating his idea of a family of superheroes. The concept intrigued Lasseter, as superheroes were something that had never been done in animated features (that realm was slowly coming back in live-action at the time).
Pretty soon, Brad and several of his colleagues who worked on The Iron Giant, relocated to the Bay Area, and began to acclimate themselves with the PIXAR studio, and its staff.
I recall first hearing word of this project as Disney and PIXAR made its production known around 2002. At the time, we had little information on it, but at the start of Finding Nemo, we received our first taste when in a teaser image, Mr Incredible attempted to return to duty…albeit not quite as fit as he used to be. That teaser trailer ranked right up there with the one from Monsters Inc, in that we had some great character interaction with just trying to do a simple thing, which is also a great animation exercise.
Speaking of exercises, Brad really put the animation and rigging staff through the ringer. The characters in this film had muscles underneath their skin, let alone had to adhere to Bird’s caveat that they move believably, even though they were exaggerated. Case-in-point, Bob Parr has a body that tapers down to a small pair of legs, yet you have to believe that they can support his upper-body. Many animators said it was like going back to school all over again, and working on your Masters degree.
Probably not since Toy Story, had PIXAR undertaken such a major production. Brad Bird is always striving to break down barriers, and The Incredibles is a film that barreled through a number of major hurdles that the company was still trying to get down: humans, hair, water, cloth, and even interaction between those 4 things at one time was huge. Just take the scene below. This simple scene of Bob Parr (Craig T Nelson) putting his hand through the rip in his supersuit, was incredibly complex at that time!
And speaking of that rip in the supersuit, Bird did something that really earned my admiration, and that of others: he made us believe that even though these were animated characters, they could be harmed. When Bob is first attacked by the Omnidroid, and it tears his suit (leaving a red scratch on Bob’s skin). I remember my eyes popping open: this was something that no studio seemed willing to do: making you believe the peril was ‘serious.’
The reinforcement of just who the bad guys are in this film, is delivered in a great little speech by Helen:
“Remember the bad guys on those shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you’re children. They will kill you if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance.”
One of my favorite scenes, is when Syndrome sends off a barrage of missiles to intercept the plane that Helen Parr (Holly Hunter) and her children are on. The gut reaction of John Q Public is that this is a Disney movie, and they’ll get out of it. Violet Parr (Sarah Vowell) will make her forcefield materialize, and they’ll be saved. But instead, she fails, and Helen envelopes her children, as the plane bursts into flaming debris, and the three pitch down towards the ocean below! At the time, 3 years after the events of 9/11, Hollywood was apprehensive of showing anything that had to do with explosions and airplanes. And yet, Bird and the guys at PIXAR took a very big chance, giving us something intense that we were not used to seeing in animation.
I still remember my Dad’s first words when the lights came up at a screening we attended in November of 2004: “I really like Edna!”
Edna Mode is an amazing example of giving us a fun character, but not letting that character overpower your story. E definitely has a personality that seems 5 times her normal size, but it’s in keeping her role small, that makes her all the more memorable. Bird has done similar small-yet-big characters like this, with Dean in The Iron Giant, or Anton Ego in Ratatouille. Less can often equal more in cases like this.
One place where the filmmakers do not skimp on, is making all characters seem believable. I can’t think of any characters that ever seem to not seem real or important. Even Bob Parr’s government supervisor Rick Dicker (voiced by Bud Luckey) is memorable for the few minutes of screen time he has. And of course, there’ s something very real amid the comical dialogue of the “Where is my supersuit” moment between Frozone and his (unseen) wife, Honey.
In the making-of documentaries and the audio commentary, the filmmakers touch on something remarkable about the film as well: there doesn’t seem to be a single scene that you would not want to have a shot at animating. Most films have only a few scenes that everyone wishes they could work on, but this is just packed with them! One guy, according to the animator’s commentary, was ecstatic that he was animating a scene of two guys talking inside a car (seriously, you never see that in animated films!).
The film was also notable, for having (at the time) the most locations and wardrobe changes of any film the company had done. Just consider PIXAR’s films from Toy Story up through Finding Nemo. While several of those films had humans, they did not go through multiple wardrobe changes. And in some cases, some characters in those films didn’t wear clothes!
Bird also manages to write his characters like they are real people, such as in the rather grown-up depiction of Bob and Helen’s marriage, let alone how half-way through the film, Helen suspects that Bob might be having an affair. Violet’s timidity feels genuine, as does Bob’s dejectedness at being denied the ability to do the things he wants.
There’s a great joke that I think couples or those who have been in a relationship will get, that most won’t. After she finds Bob on the island, Helen just seems very upset with him, yet Bob doesn’t quite understand why. It seems that all Helen wants, is for him to admit what a stupid thing he did (lying to her, worrying her, putting her and their children in a situation where they could be killed), but like some guys, he’s unable to bring himself to admit it.
It is only after the family has been imprisoned, and are watching Syndrome’s Omnidroid wrecking Metroville, does Bob finally admit his faults, and how stupid he’s been. The funny moment comes when Violet frees herself. Dash sees this, but Helen quickly hushes him.
The reason this is funny? Because Helen is getting what she’s wanted: Bob admitting what he did was wrong, and she knows if anything interrupts him, he might never admit his mistake, ever again!
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention how the film brought a new composer to the ears of many: Michael Giacchino. The Incredibles marked the first major film score Michael worked on, and seemed to cement who he is: a lover of the more classic stylings of film scores, not afraid to bring in the brass, or even to give us a tinkling of fast-paced marimbas. This is a man who likes not only to get dark and deep, but light-hearted and fun. As well, those who bought the soundtrack were soon inducted into Giacchino’s ‘habit’ of making puns out of each of his film tracks (like “100 Mile Dash”).
On a more personal note, The Incredibles was screened at a theater I used to work at, a month in advance for a college audience. As a head projectionist, I begged to be the guy in charge of this thing, and got my wish! I recall that evening being a lot of running around, checking sound levels and waiting for the print to arrive (it had a special padlocked code, and I was supervised by an editor from PIXAR, as I assembled it).
While my first experience with the film was from the projection booth, I was rapt to the attention of the audience, and could hear their reactions in a perfect roar through the projection booth glass.
After it was over, and I had broken down the print to be sent off to its next super-secret screening, I got the chance to say hi to Brad Bird and producer John Walker. Almost everyone who was attending had brought Brad things to sign (DVD’s of The Simpsons, The Critic, and someone had an Iron Giant poster!). As for me, I had brought with me the just-released Art of The Incredibles book. I recall Brad being surprised that it had come out already. Though hearing that I was the projectionist in charge of the screening, Brad added an extra little thank-you to his signature, as can be seen here:
Btw, for those who haven’t seen it, the book shows a dramatic departure from a lot of the previous concept art PIXAR had done, with a lot of characters and scene research, relying on collage work.
10 years later, The Incredibles is spoken of with much love for those who are animation fans (it’s my 2nd favorite PIXAR film, right behind Toy Story 2). While Finding Nemo was PIXAR’s big moneymaker at the time, The Incredibles won many of us over with what Brad Bird brought to the table. While many see it as ‘a superhero movie,’ it is moreso the strength of the story and its characters, that makes it rise above and beyond. Those two areas are what Bird strives to do well, and his efforts were greatly rewarded come Awards Season following the film’s release.
I will also admit, I was never keen on the idea that the world needed an Incredibles 2. Many have pestered Bird for over a decade that we “need” one, and while one is being developed from an idea of his (though Brad isn’t in the driver’s seat), I’m one of the minority that feels it is unnecessary. There’s so much incredible (no pun intended) stuff to be found in this film, that it just feels there’s no way to give us a sequel that can improve on it.
As well, I love that Brad has kept pushing forward with each of the films he’s done. He turned Ratatouille into an ode for artists. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol brought a human element of danger that made these characters feel expendable. And like many, I am eager to see what Brad will bring to the table next year, when the Disney-inspired Tomorrowland takes us away.
It’s hard to believe that almost 10 years later, Walt Disney Feature Animation is about to release its own take on superheros, with the Marvel-associated, Big Hero 6. Just like The Incredibles, I am very excited to see what 6 has in store for audiences. Disney‘s Feature Animation division has almost become what PIXAR was 10 years ago: a studio that keeps churning out new stories and innovative ideas, though we’ll have to wait and see if audiences will warm up to the superheroes of San Fransokyo, the way they did to the Parr family some time ago.
(Available in the iTunes App Store for iPhone, iPad, & iPod Touch. Requires iOS 6.0 or later. Price: Free to Download)
Tomorrowland – A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying Man’s achievement. A step into the future, with predictions of constructed things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals. The Atomic Age, the challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a peaceful, unified world – Walt Disney; July 17, 1955
At the time of its reveal that Summer of 1955, Tomorrowland signified a portion of Disneyland, that often seemed to fascinate Walt Disney: the future. It’s no surprise that Walt himself often looked to the future for new innovations, both within his studio, and later in his own Theme Park.
Sadly, Walt’s vision of Tomorrowland (almost) being a testing ground for what the future could become, soon seemed more science fiction, than science fact. The attractions of TWA flights into space, plastic houses, and peoplemover transportation systems, failed to move beyond the confines of the small land. Today, the themes of Tomorrowland are all but lost in a sea of attractions tied to properties like Star Wars, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story.
But back in the day, Walt continued to “keep moving forward.” His visions post-Disneyland, would soon encompass “Tomorrow” in another way: an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, which was to be built adjacent to a second Disney theme park: Walt Disney World. However, Walt’s death in 1966, and a company whose risk-taking stalled with the death of its creator, put the kibosh on a project that some saw as too risky in the rather turbulent era of the late 60’s. EPCOT would materialize in 1982, no longer a planned urban community, but a cross between a world’s fair, and a showcase of technological innovation.
Many have often had fond memories of those flights of fancy that Walt put before us on his Disneyland television series, showing rockets blasting off into space, of what exotic creatures may exist on other planets. Luckily, it seemed that several in the film industry remembered them as well.
In the last few years, Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) have been hard at work on a film that seems as secretive as a JJ Abrams film. The project? Tomorrowland.
The first hint of this project came in January 2013, when Brad Bird tweeted a picture of a black box said to have been found in the catacombs beneath the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. The box was labeled simply on the front, with the number “1952,” but inside, there were found numerous items. Photographs, old magazines, and much, much more. Word was, the contents of the strange box, “inspired” Brad and Damon on their film collaboration.
At 2013’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, Bird and Lindelof took to the main stage on the second day of the Expo, and began to dig through the box, showcasing several of the artifact inside. We saw everything from a strange disc, to a doctored photo of Walt Disney with Amelia Earhart, and blueprint of It’s a Small World, that contained hidden details.
Also at the D23 Expo, was the continuation of a wonderful little inside-marketing pitch to really get in the heads of die-hard Disney fans. A man known as Wallace, briefly had a website and Twitter account active, showcasing his love of Disney cartography, and even had an exhibitor booth at the Expo. Interspersed throughout the expo, was a grand treasure hunt, that if you had the time (and most likely a pass to the parks!), would lead you and several other cohorts, on a grand-scale adventure, following clues and riddles (a summary of the journey can be found at Inside The Magic).
Sadly, I only got a few clues in with some folks before I could not continue, as I did not have a pass to the parks. I did visit with Wallace to let him know that I could not continue, and was very excited when Wallace offered me a small consolation: a print of one of the images he had created, based around 4 of the 1964 World’s Fair attractions that Disney had had made. Of the four choices, I went for the print of the one Disneyland attraction that I had never been on: The Carousel of Progress (which closed at Disneyland in 1973, before I was born).
While only some knew of the viral campaign that was playing out under their noses, the majority of the expo-goers, had the opportunity to visit within a booth that promised to reveal several of the finds from within the “1952” black box, let alone some other odds-and-ends found around the Disney Studios.
For those taking the tour, there was the ability to borrow out iPads with a Tomorrowland app installed. For those of us with iPhones and iPads of our own, it was simply a matter of finding a connection, and downloading the free app to our own devices.
Also of deterrence to keeping the secrets from getting out, were security guards stationed around the exhibit, making sure no photography was taken (close-up, that is). However, a few bits of the display, did make it onto the app.
Of the different display pieces in the booth, 13 have corresponding information bits included on the app.
Several of the information bits have included audio commentary. Aside from an unnamed narrator, we hear audio from the likes of writer/producer Damon Lindelof, and former Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr.
The app doesn’t give away every detail of what is in the exhibit, with some parts telling that certain legal reasons keep them from showcasing various items. As well, a few of the dimensional items included in the exhibit are fragmented into multiple pictures.
The app does paint a wildly imaginative world in our heads, from experimental storage discs (like the one above), a second-step in the development of Walt’s Audio-Animatronic figures, a cancelled jetpack-related ride, and even an abandoned TV-show script. The TV show script is rather intriguing, in that all the live-action segments scripted inside, are heavily crossed out, with “NO!!” scrawled on the last page. I recall looking deeply at the pages up-close, but I couldn’t make out anything that had previously been typed.
One piece that I found myself wrapping my brain around for several minutes when going over the exhibit, was the piece below. It shows an overlay of a city that follows the same radiating design aesthetic that Walt had in mind for EPCOT, but the torn overlay appears to be set up over a region with some hilly terrain…which is most definitely not Florida.
Notable throughout the exhibit, is a special logo that appears on numerous pieces, of a “plus” symbol cutting through the letter “u.” This appears to be the symbol of a group called Plus Ultra. The general idea is that Walt himself was a member of this super-secret society, that sought to find a way to keep advancing technology into the future. The symbol can be seen on several of the items displayed within the app.
Sadly, the app has not been updated since late August of 2013. It can still be found in the Apple App Store, albeit buried rather discretely. It’s hard to tell if the app may be updated as we get closer to the film’s May 2015 release date, or if it was just that special little extra bit of info for those of us, willing to have our curiosity peaked by a dream of a place, where nothing is impossible.
If you have had your appetite whetted by the latest teaser trailer, then you might want to seek this app out. It’s a free download, and provides some further tidbits that may or may not be revealed in the final film. It probably won’t change your world, but it may give you some more to think about, as we wait to see what Tomorrowland has in store for us, come next May.
Back in June, I included a post in my Films that deserve a more dignified home video release sub-section, mentioning a childhood favorite for many of us who grew up in the 1980’s. The Neverending Story has often been a fascinating film that I definitely recall seeing in little corners of my life. A girl in middle school always carried a copy of the original Michael Ende book around with her, and in an animation-acting class in college, I re-enacted the scene from the film where Bastian meets bookstore owner, Mr Coreander.
Though while films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and even The Goonies had been given some special treatment with the advent of the DVD-age, Story languished as little more than a film-only release in bargain bins at discount stores. It was this treatment that kept me from purchasing the film for many years…until word came that Warner Brothers was going to release a Special Edition!
In regards to film releases on home video, Warner Brothers has had a spotty track-record. While they did release the film adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors with the original cut included (in color!), they also pretty much just threw out the last seasons of Tiny Toon Adventures, just to to get them out on the market.
The film focuses on Bastian Balthazar Bux (Barrett Oliver), a young boy who is still trying to get over the death of his mother. One day while running away from a group of bullying boys, he finds himself in a bookstore, wherein its owner entices him to take a certain book, claiming the others that Bastian likes to read, “are safe.”
Plunging into reading The Neverending Story, Bastian soon finds himself caught up in the hero’s quest of Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), a young warrior tasked with finding a cure for The Childlike Empress (Tami Stronach), while attempting to save her and their world from a destructive force known only as “The Nothing.”
On its own, the film acts as a truncated version of the first half of Ende’s novel. However, one can definitely sense care in the material. The filmmakers definitely get down the task of creating a believable world, let alone a character that you can truly root for. The fact that the task of saving the world falls to a weaponless boy, is definitely a perplexing quest to make one like Bastian intrigued.
Speaking of perplexing, it does feel that given the limitations of the time, much of the story almost seems cobbled together as it goes from setting to setting in the world of Fantasia. 3/4 of the way through, the film almost feels like it gets stuck in a corner, and has to resolve several different plot points in a very small amount of time.
There were mixed reactions regarding the last Blu-Ray release, which many online have claimed to have just been thrown onto the market. As I don’t have the capabilities to properly analyze the film with a fine-tooth-comb, I can say that the colors on this piece definitely feels like an improvement over the previous copies I’ve seen many years ago (though those were VHS and DVD). I even noticed features in the film I hadn’t seen previously, such as twinkling lights at the base of The Ivory Tower!
For years, there has been word that the version of the film we in America saw, was a cut version. There is talk that the original German cut, there’s some 8 additional minutes, though they don’t really add any major scenes, but tend to stretch out the mood in some areas. Sadly, we still can’t see what audiences over in Europe saw.
The Special Features
Of all the incentives to purchase this release, the inclusion of most of these special features was what led to my immediate purchase of the film.
Audio Commentary – Christina Hacopian conducts a small Q&A with director Wolfgang Petersen over the course of the film. Christina immediately gushes regarding her fandom of the film, though it soon becomes apparent that while a fan of the film, she hasn’t read Ende’s book. Her questions are mainly in regards to the film, asking Petersen about certain scenes, and about making the film in general. Sadly, nothing really mind-blowing is given…well, except that a certain bearded director did help Petersen when cutting the film down for the American release. Oh, and in case you were wondering what name Bastian gives the Empress, you’ll also find it here too.
Reimagining The Neverending Story – This reminiscence is a rather remarkable goulash of information. Though there are newly-filmed clips and interviews, it also weaves together bits from the specials, The Making of The Neverending Story, and 60 Million for Fantasies. Of the interview pieces, many of them are from members of the crew, telling of their experiences. One interesting moment, comes when they discuss the dilemma of ending the film (which did not please Michael Ende when he found out!).
The special is notable in that you may find yourself pausing it quite a bit, as numerous still images go by, showcasing production stills, and plenty of video clips regarding the production of the film. I dare say there’s more than enough material to make a really nice coffee-table book (anyone up to help me with a Kickstarter to make that?).
For the original cast, the only appearances in the piece are Tami Stronach (the Childlike Empress), and Gerald McRaney (Bastian’s father?). Of the two, Tami gets the most screen-time, telling a few small stories of her experiences on set. Sadly, among all the pieces, this is the only one-on-one we get with a member of the main cast.
The Making of The Neverending Story – Something tells me this special was probably made some time in the last 5-10 years, given that interspersed among the dated making-of material, there are some more modern pieces. It also was most likely a German-only release, as Wolfgang Petersen offers some words, speaking in German.
One fun little bit is watching how they made up Tilo Prickner as the bat-flying Night Hob in the film. It’s a short-yet-sweet bit showing his preparations, let alone his frustrations one day when wanting to get out of his confining makeup.
1984 SWR Documentary, “A World of Fantasies” – For some time now, this documentary could be found on Youtube, under the translated title, 60 Million for Fantasies. The special almost serves as a major spoiler to the film, as the hour-long special follows the structure of the story from start-to-finish. It is also a time-capsule, in that it was made and released during the production of the film. It is nice when the special slows down, notably in the scene filming in the Swamps of Sadness, which was completely made inside a soundstage at Bavaria Film Studios. What’s mind-boggling is that just to film for a single day in the setting, cost $130,000 US (and they filmed on that stage for several weeks!). As well, the filmmakers focus on Petersen during the heart-wrenching scene in which Atreyu’s horse Artax is overtaken by the sadness of the swamp, and one can see when the emotion hits the director’s face.
What I liked about this is there was no steamrolling over one of the most interesting parts of this documentary: a few minutes where author Michael Ende gives his own views on how the film seems almost to be a “perversion” of his original work.
Restoration – Warners touted that this latest release would get an upgrade, and we are treated to a small featurette on it. Restored not far from where the film was originally filmed, we are shown a step-by-step process on what it takes to go from analog, to digital. It’s also worth noting that we see a few scenes that were cut out of the American release.
Trailer -What would a release be without a return to the coming attraction reels of yesteryear? It’s rather amazing to see how in the old days, there was little worry about dumbing things down for kids.
I will warn you, that you may need to dig a little to find copies of this release. The Target store I visited only had two copies in stock, and neither was put out on the floor in their New Releases or Children’s section. It was a little funny when the clerk who found it for me glanced at it and went, “I remember seeing this in theaters when I was a kid!”
Over the years, I will say I’m a realist when it comes to expecting more from things. I’ll always hold onto a dream of a truly incredible release of The Neverending Story, but the Blu-Ray release gets an “E for effort” in my book. I’m sure there are hundreds of people like me out there, who have been clamoring for a glimpse behind-the-scenes of this passed-over film, and most of the special features, will give them that glimpse. That to me is one of the highlights of the piece: seeing all these physical effects in mechanical and makeup form, that managed to make you believe what you were seeing on the screen. Sure, the matte lines around Falkor’s hair wasn’t perfect, but as a kid, you brushed those issues aside.
There’s also a fun game of listening to the different vocals across the various specials. Because this was a cross-cultural production, there’s quite a few different bits of dialogue one hears. Notable is how ‘young’ Hathaway sounds when filming some scenes, different from his final vocals as Atreyu. As well, it’s funny when in one scene, we hear some creatures speaking in different tones of voice (one doing a rather hokey American vocal).
I do feel a little sadness that though we did get to hear from Tami Stronach, there’s no trace of Barret Oliver or Noah Hathaway, other than praise for them here and there, and the clips of their time on set.
What’s also interesting is during several of the specials, it’s brought up of the importance of how the international market would make the expensive film a success..notably, America being key. It’s funny to think that America was the key to money-making success for films like this 30 years ago. In our world today, Hollywood is banking on countries like China to save its bottom-line for large-scale productions. While the filmmakers back in the 80’s supposedly cast American actors to make their film more ‘bankable,’ we’ve taken to adding special scenes in films like Iron Man 3 and Transformers: Age of Extinction, to please foreign markets.
Of course, I’ll still hold onto the dream that maybe some day, a release like the one I Photoshopped below, may come to pass for The Neverending Story:
I would also love it if maybe one day, we got a full score release of Klaus Doldinger’s music, let alone maybe alternate musical cues. Even with this Blu-Ray release, it still feels like there’s still plenty of stuff out there for us fans of The Neverending Story to dream about.
*UPDATE: ADDENDUM REGARDING THE FILM BEING “REMASTERED”
Wow, this is some serious ball-dropping here on Warner Brothers’ part. Those who had seen ads had seen the mention of The Neverending Story being remastered for this release, let alone the inclusion of that restoration special on this disc. However, On the Facebook page for The Neverending Story, WB admitted this a few hours ago:
Yes…The cake is a lie!!! My guess is someone in the back rooms of Warner probably didn’t think anyone really cared enough to notice…well, except for those online with a discernible eye for detail when it comes to High-Definition pictures.
As of now, there’s been no word of a re-pressing to give those who purchased this latest a remastered copy. As it stands now, that remaster talked of in the restoration special, may only be found on certain Region 2 Blu-Rays, in either the European or Japan marketplaces.
I hate to report on this information, but after seeing a number of forum talks on this subject, let alone many of us having read about getting an anniversary-level remaster over the past several months, I felt I should at least include my mention here. And here I thought there would at least be a little more TLC put into this release, but then again, I do go off into those daydreams.
Last year’s release of My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, was one of the first signs of Hasbro trying to spin off their uber-successful television series/toy line into other realms where they might be able to profit from.
Of course, the Friendship is Magic fandom had those who ran around screaming that that ‘the end is neigh,’ but the movie did very little to put a dent in people’s love of the series.
Along with adding an alternate universe to the mix, the film introduced a new character to the mythology of the show: Sunset Shimmer.
Sunset’s background information was kept to a minimum in regards to the film, but one key fact was that she was Princess Celestia’s star pupil before Twilight Sparkle. However, when she didn’t get what she wanted fast enough, she eventually left through a special mirror in the Celestia’s castle.
Returning through the portal in the film, she makes off with Twilight Sparkle’s crown, which leads Twilight to go after her.
On a first-impression basis regarding Sunset, it’s very easy to just say she’s the typical “high school mean girl,” but I feel there might have been something more to her than the way the film simplified her. I decided to outline them in this posting below.
*Keep in mind that this dissection does not take into account the story from the My Little Pony Comics Annual from 2013. To me, that exists in an outside story realm that is not really related to the TV/movie continuity.*
Mean Girl…or Genius at Work?
From her attitude and looks, many firstly assume that Sunset Shimmer is the equivalent of the “mean girl” in high school (and that’s me being polite for this dissection).
But, if she was once Celestia’s star student, one has to figure she was chosen because she had a studious way about her.
Some have pointed out that Sunset definitely has a way for making others feel inferior to her, and that made me consider this: what if Sunset is not so much a “mean girl,” but one of those “super-genius” students?
We’ve heard of them: the kind that are on a mental level that makes them feel like the world around them is going too slow for them, or is unable to understand just how smart they are. Word is Steve Jobs had that mentality, and for those who watch The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper is a character in this same boat.
Sheldon on several occasions, has been of the persuasion that his intelligence and projects in some areas, are worthy of being considered above those he feels are not worthy of such attention.
One could definitely see this thinking related to Sunset, and how she demeans those around her. One video analogy online mentioned how Sunset would apologize in some cases for what she is doing, but it almost sounds like she’s just saying, “sorry you’re in my way, but I deserve this more than you do.”
Plus, there are those who wonder why Sunset doesn’t just steal the real crown back, but if one considers her to be an all-knowing genius, she figures that she’ll get it eventually, given her thinking that Twilight is too new to this world to understand ‘how it all works.’
Gradual takeover…and boredom?
It seems many assume Sunset Shimmer came through the portal from Equestria, and immediately separated the school. However, I think there’s enough evidence to show this wasn’t the case.
One example is Twilight Sparkle. Twilight herself had some trouble adapting to her new form in this world. It’s a given that Sunset Shimmer would also have gone through this “awkward” phase.
Another example, is when Rarity shows the ears and tail accessories she made to the girls later on. She mentions how they were “very popular during freshman year.”
Though a prime example, is the trio of pictures of the Fall Formal Princess in Principal Celestia’s office. The first image shows Sunset looking rather innocent in a white dress, with a shocked look on her face. Then, as the photos go on over the next few years, she seems to get cockier, until the last where she seems almost power-mad.
Plus, keep in mind how her wardrobe begins to build in purple coloration in the 2nd and 3rd pictures, from the more ‘pure’ white dress in the first. Why purple? Well, some places online mention that “the color purple is often associated with royalty, nobility, luxury, power, and ambition.”
This bit definitely paints a picture of how Sunset may have let the idea of power within this high school system corrupt her.
In order to maintain a sense of power, she then chose an opposite measure than what one would normally do: she began to segregate the students in school into their own groups. Some claim this may seem odd, but look throughout history, and one can see how certain reigns/regimes went about separating people into different castes in order to maintain some form of ‘order.’ Heck, even the recent film Divergent mentions a separation system in its future society story, as a way to keep the world in some form of ‘perfect order.’
And of course, it was very rare for anyone to express dissent or unite under the circumstances, which seems largely what Sunset was about. After all, what she engages in is largely a form of school bullying, and yet, she seems to never have been ‘snitched’ about to the Principal or Vice-Principal.
Plus, this does bring up another thought: could Sunset have used movies as part of her “high school research?” After all, one could almost say she is emulating many of the “Queen Bee” cliches of high school, even using Flash Sentry as little more than arm-candy…though the film does keep that bit rather vague.
Did Sunset Shimmer know about the girls’ connection?
This is something that some have managed to make me think about in our discussions. Sunset made it through the portal before the events of the first episode of Friendship is Magic. The girls in this alternate universe who represent Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, and Rarity, are considered to be friends. However, the Twilight Sparkle (and her dog Spike) of this universe, live in a different part of the city, and doesn’t (if ever) interact with the 5 girls.
Another key factor, is that magic does not exist in this universe. There are no Elements of Harmony to defeat an evil power. The 5 in Canterlot High were probably good friends before entering high school, but were just normal victims of Sunset’s plans for “power through separation.”
How did Sunset know about Twilight and her crown?
This theory requires a little imagination. It does seem odd that Sunset Shimmer would know how to easily get around the Crystal Empire’s castle (a place that has just returned from a 1000-year disappearance!), let alone where Twilight was staying.
I feel, that Sunset did make little dips back and forth between worlds. Probably too arrogant to simply come back and beg forgiveness from her powerful mentor for up and leaving, Sunset would probably just dip through enough to sneak around, and overhear what was going on, before returning to the human universe.
The mirror was previously kept in Celestia’s palace in Canterlot, so one can assume Sunset overheard enough information to know of the Mane 6’s exploits, and what had been going on since she left. As well, once the mirror was moved to the Crystal Empire, she continued to possibly overhear conversations Princess Cadance had with Celestia about certain goings-on in the world of Equestria.
This could explain how she also knew about Twilight’s title of “Princess,” let alone just what Twilight’s crown looked like. It may also be that in the human world, she had a say in how the crown for the Fall Formal this year would look, and fashioned it to resemble Twilight’s to avoid suspicion.
“I’m not a monster, Twilight!”
One of the keys to most villains, is that many never think of what they are doing is inherently bad.
All of the things Sunset does, are largely because she is trying to achieve a goal, which is get the crown. Of course, when she gets it, it acts on her almost like the artifacts on an Indiana Jones villain.
Some have been of the persuasion that Sunset Shimmer knew exactly what she was doing with the crown on, but many discount several of the expressions on her face.
When she first puts on the crown (below, left), there’s an expression that seems to say, “…this isn’t right!”
As well, we get a close-up of her face with tears streaming down, before they seem to vaporize (center, above). As she continues to turn into her demon form, we get this last expression (upper-right), before she completes her transformation:
Obviously, this isn’t the kind of in-control transformation we’ve seen from the likes of Princess Luna, or Queen Chrysalis.
One thing I’ve seen in several animated shows and series from Japan, is the idea of certain items or talismans bringing out what someone is on the inside, usually turning a person’s personality inside-out.
This to me explains the aftermath scene, where Twilight tells how Sunset has shown “everyone what was in your heart.”
We often say or think things deep down that we never express, or that our better judgement holds back, but it seems in the case of Sunset wearing the crown, it broke down those barriers, and let her deepest thoughts spill out into reality.
First example: Taking over Equestria.
Sunset seems moreso someone who wanted more power, and after she had seemingly conquered Canterlot High, she then decided to go after Twilight’s crown. Her base desires may have been to achieve the power she felt she was entitled to as Celestia’s student, but deep down, that desire festered into something more, which resulted in her ‘teenage army’ plot. Though I think this was moreso the crown magnifying her base desires ten-fold.
Second example: attempting to kill Twilight and her friends.
This to me is that darker side of Sunset rearing its head. While she was more apt to break apart friendships and divide people, she wouldn’t consider actually killing anyone in this world. We saw her attack Twilight for the crown, but other than that, she wouldn’t kill for something. However, with the moral switches off, the demonized Sunset didn’t think twice about attempting to eliminate Twilight.
“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry!”
This line with Sunset’s teary-eyed face incited a lot of people to consider this scene nothing but a quick cop-out, or mediocre copy of Princess Luna’s redemption from The Mare in the Moon 2-parter from Friendship is Magic.
However, remember the look of confusion and pain on her face during the transformation? My belief is that with the inner-demon of her personality coming out, the good side of Sunset was trapped inside, forced to be witness to her innermost thoughts coming true.
Having been exorcised of these “inner demons,” along with forcibly being shown the error of her ways in how she sought power, this to me, is the reason for her aftermath appearance/apology. It’s almost like an addict finally coming to grips with their problem, thus at the end of the film, Sunset is almost back at square one, having to figure out just what she is going to do next.
Sunset Shimmer once again, is not one of the best characters in the Equestria Girls universe, but she’s definitely intrigued me with what scant information has been given. And after all, there have been plenty of other fan-loved characters that have been embraced given how sketchy and less-informed their backstories are (The Great and Powerful Trixie, anyone?). Talking about this, some have said I’ve looked too far into the character of Sunset, but it’s no different than other in-depth analysis/speculations I’ve seen on other characters.
With the recent release of the follow-up film Rainbow Rocks, early word is that much of the shallow characterization that plagued Sunset Shimmer in the first film has been worked on, making her a little more grounded, and easier to understand and relate to. I may visit this topic down the line after the film is released wider.