Tag Archives: bronies

Lego minifigures, why so serious?

spaceman

This fascinating article from last week illuminated an otherwise unnoticed fact – that over the last few decades, the faces printed on Lego minifigures have been getting steadily more angry and intense.  Those cute little plastic guys, population 4 billion and rising, who for a long time faced the world with a uniform array of sweet smiles have succumbed to the creeping angst of a 21st Century obsessed with dystopia and inner turmoil.  Is nothing sacred?  Is there no refuge from the seeming relentless push towards “dark and edgy” as the only virtues in our entertainment, no matter its form?

My first Lego set came my way when Jimmy Carter was still President; it was a Space set featuring a tiny wedge-shaped ship, controlled by a steering wheel, mounted on a launch vehicle, and it included a single red-suited spaceman, happy at the prospect of the adventures he was certain to have with me.  Shortly thereafter Lego became my toy of choice – forget Transformers, G.I. Joes or whatever else, if that wrapped Christmas present didn’t manifest the trademark rattle when shaken it was bound to be disappointment on the morning of December 25th.  With birthdays and other special occasions my armada grew to include astronauts in white and yellow, and eventually (once the line expanded) blue and black.  And darn it if those little guys weren’t always cheerful.  Even when Lego went a step further and introduced the first “bad guys” of Lego Space – Blacktron – beneath those ominous dark-shielded helmets could be found the same delightful grin.  The same went for the Town and Castle lines.

Kids grow up, of course, and Lego falls by the wayside… until 1998 and Lego Freakin’ Star Wars drops.  By then I’m handling my own discretionary spending and so set after set gets snapped up to the detriment of my income but to the benefit of recapturing childhood glee.  But the minifigures have changed.  Their faces have been customized to better suit the Star Wars characters.  Leia has eyelashes and lipstick, Han has a little wry smirk.  Luke Skywalker looks rather dour with a very even, mature expression more suited to the way Mark Hamill looks now than his A New Hope variant.  As the line prospers, pieces are refined and more and more sets are released, with the minifigures continuing to evolve alongside them, finally trading in their trademark yellow hue for tones borrowed from the actors who played the characters.  And many of them are downright grumpy.  A few of the nameless officers still sport the crescent-moon grin, as though working for the Galactic Empire or the Rebellion respectively is the most awesomest job ever, but the more famous characters are all pretty darned serious.  And this is only Star Wars – this isn’t considering Batman, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter or the Lego City lines or innumerable others where often, minifigures look pissed off, as if someone has completely ruined their wonderful little plastic day.  (We won’t get into the replacement of megaphones with blaster pistols for the Stormtroopers’ weapons, that’s another conversation).

So, is Lego driving this trend or is it merely responding to the downward (emotionally speaking, that is) trend in popular taste?  Whenever you hear about a new movie or television series being pitched, the makers’ first comment is usually that it’s “dark and edgy,” almost as a reflex response.  It’s what’s in – presumably, a “bright and sunny” film would be laughed out of the room.  We have seen countless remakes and reimaginings where otherwise optimistic tales are “darkened” for public consumption.  And yet, there is obviously an appetite for optimism that is desperate to be satisfied, growing ever hungrier every time “dark and edgy” sighs its way onto our screens again.  We saw evidence of this appetite in recent years with the brony phenomenon coming out of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where otherwise-angst-consumed teens and adults embraced a colorful children’s cartoon that emphasized the importance of kindness in all things.  We want to feel happy, yet our entertainment producers keep shoving melancholy down our throats, and we swallow it willingly, trying to ignore the sting of the razor blade as it rattles its way down into our stomachs.

Lego is hedging their bets somewhat, as it often prints Janus-like heads with two different expressions, one serene and one more intense, that can be rotated depending on the mood of play.  Part of what made the original smiling minifigure so endearing, however, was that no matter what horrific fate might befall him – usually bisection in a spaceship crash, if we’re going by my experience – he came through it with unflappable joy and spunk, ready to be reassembled for more.  No matter what kind of day you’d had, if you’d flunked a test or been shoved into the locker again by that mean kid twice your size, when you shuffled back into your room your Lego men were always smiling at you and standing ever ready to help you explore the very limits of your imagination.  Maybe there are limits to what a bunch of little plastic guys can teach a kid, but the attitude of the classic minifigure – embracing challenge with positivity no matter what the circumstance – is worth preserving and passing along.  Let’s save the angst until high school at least.

Two more reasons why MLP:FIM is awesome

Presented for your enjoyment.  All content of course the property of The Hub and the creators of the show.  In my previous post on My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic (and don’t worry, this blog is not going to degenerate into a weekly update on all things pony) I pointed out the show’s embrace of remix culture and its extended “brony” fanbase.  Below are a couple of screengrabs from the most recent episode, taking place in a bowling alley.  Ask yourself how many tween girls would notice this – and understand the reference:
It's "The Jesus" himself! With a hairnet covering his mane and tail. But who else is lurking in the background off to the right... look a little closer now...
 
It is! The Dude, Donny and Walter! Man, that really ties the episode together!

Yes indeed – The Big Lebowski has invaded My Little Pony.  A cult movie that sits in the top ten list of the most uses of the F-word has snuck into a kid’s cartoon.  Young girls won’t get it.  Bronies will love it.  And much rejoicing and many celebratory White Russians will ensue.

It’s just like, my opinion, man, but I really dig this show.

My my, little pony

What kind of week has it been?  Occupy Wall Street is spreading.  The GOP presidential contenders are an increasingly madcap circus act absent only the clown noses.  Canada is about to get slammed with ridiculous “tough on crime” mandatory minimum sentencing laws that even Texas Republicans say don’t work.  Carson Kressley got voted off Dancing with the Stars.  And it’s raining so hard tonight that one half expects to spot a bearded man gathering two of every animal.  What better time to talk about… My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic?

At first you might think that I have finally lived up to the name of this blog and gone, accordingly, crackers.  But the spread of this latest pop culture phenomenon is fascinating and worth some discussion.  Besides, I feel like I’ve gotten awfully serious in the last few posts and I, not to mention readers, could probably use a little bit of fluff to part the clouds.

Last year, HUB in the U.S., formerly Discovery Kids, began airing My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic.  The animated series follows the exploits of studious young unicorn Twilight Sparkle and her friends:  countrified orchard keeper Applejack, posh fashion designer Rarity, tomboy speedster Rainbow Dash, sweet and timid Fluttershy and basically bonkers Pinkie Pie, learning lessons as they tangle with relationships, responsibilities and the occasional monster.  It sounded for all intents and purposes like just another girly, glorified toy commercial.

But then the series hit the Internet, and like the proverbial wildfire, exploded, as a demographic beyond the dreams of the show’s creators seized upon it and began extolling its virtues on popular discussion boards like 4chan and Memebase.  Episodes were dissected, minutiae memorized.  An animator’s error crossing one of the background ponies’ eyes gave birth to a fan-fiction character, “Derpy Hooves,” with a history and personality all her own.  Teenage boys and even older fans adopted the show’s catchphrases and dubbed fellow enthusiasts “bronies” – a portmanteau for ‘brother ponies.’  It did not take long for fandom to spread beyond cyberspace – the phenomenon became so large that bronies were deemed worthy of mocking (unsurprisingly) on Fox News, Stephen Colbert gave bronies a shout-out on his show, and even President Bill Clinton was quizzed on his knowledge of Friendship is Magic on a recent radio appearance.  (For the record, No. 42 got all three questions right.)

What the hell, the unconverted might ask.  What do all these people see in a kid’s cartoon?

This, perhaps?

Firstly, it’s funny as all get out.  Series creator Lauren Faust has The Powerpuff Girls on her CV, another ostensibly “girly cartoon” that peppered its plots with enough clever pop culture references to amuse any adults who happened to be in the room half-watching along with their kids.  The humor in MLP:FIM doesn’t rely on tired allusions to worn-out zeitgeist staples like say, Family Guy might, but instead manages to find the humor in its characters, often in a wink to an awareness of its own absurdity as a world inhabited by anthromorphic ponies.  Witness an episode featuring a horse-drawn carriage, where the horse dragging the carriage stops, looks back at his fellow horse riding inside it and says “Ok, your turn to pull now.”  Secondly, despite the fantastical setting, the problems faced by the “mane six” are very real, and very relatable.  Unlike so many anime-influenced cartoons where of a twenty-two minute running time, ten of those minutes are devoted to fight scenes, six to redundant transformation sequences and the last few on actual character and plot, the ponies’ adventures often find them simply overcoming jealousy, petty rivalries, xenophobia, prejudice and ignorance, forging tighter bonds of friendship through understanding rather than a super-mega-plus-over-9000-uber-power explosion.

Thirdly, perhaps most of all, the characters are likeable and truly endearing.  Each has a charming quirk that never veers into pretense.  For Applejack, it’s her Southern drawl and her myriads of relatives all named after breeds of apples, from older brother Big Macintosh to doddering old Granny Smith.  Rainbow Dash scores for her Maverick-esque love of and need for speed.  Pinkie Pie’s unpredictable non-sequiturs and never-ending cheerfulness lead her to steal every scene she’s in.  But the most popular has turned out to be the milquetoast pegasus pony Fluttershy (seen above), whose tender voice – performed by actress Andrea Libman – and mannerisms practically dare you not to sigh “awww,” as if you were looking at your umpteenth YouTube kitten video.  Fluttershy’s most notable moment comes in an episode where Rainbow Dash is trying to teach her how to cheer, and Fluttershy can only respond with a pathetic, whispered “yay.”  Of course by the end of the episode she explodes with excitement at her friend’s triumph in achieving the fabled “sonic rainboom.”

If it all sounds awfully saccharine to you, you’re probably right.  Why then does it rate so highly with people who would otherwise dismiss it as childish nonsense?  MLP:FIM has become a shining example of what I referred to when talking about Star Wars a few posts ago, the idea of remix culture – art that is no longer the property of one but is instead shared and shaped by legions.  Indeed, the show’s creators have embraced their internet following and have even incorporated some of the fan creations into their own canon, transforming the series essentially into an interactive experience.  More than that, My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic succeeds, I think – and why for Fox News its popularity does not compute – because it is completely devoid of cynicism and snark.  When so much of our popular culture and indeed our humor is devoted to mocking the shortcomings of others, MLP:FIM stands apart as a warm, innocent and welcome throwback to a yearning that many of us have buried inside, that our problems can indeed be solved with compassion and without tearing each other down.  Sometimes it’s good for the soul to embrace the sweetness and simply enjoy something on a visceral level without pausing to take the piss.

And if that makes us bronies, then I guess I’d just say, after Rainbow Dash, that we’re 20% cooler because of it.