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Mike Cartoon Pony


Hardcore animation enthusiast who discuss it in video format. Also likes pastel cartoon ponies. They do that to people. And ghosts.

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Apr
28th
2020

Mini Re-Reviews: "Sleepless in Ponyville" - Season 3 Episode 6 · 10:48pm Apr 28th, 2020


SCOOTALOO: "This is the Best Flight Ever! Am I right?"
RAINBOW DASH: "Heh, maybe, squirt. It's no Sonic Rainboom, but this is pretty cool. Although, is this your first time speaking for one of these? It's just, that nod to 'The Best Night Ever', it needs to be about..."
SCOOTALOO: "...Twenty percent cooler?"
RAINBOW DASH [sighs]: "It's coaching Fluttershy on subtlety and nuance all over again here..."

Has the show really not had a Scootaloo episode before "Sleepless in Ponyville"? Nearly 60 episodes too, it would seem quite a pervasive miss if the CMC had been more major characters to this point. But as they always say, better late then never. After all, Sweetie Belle's first focus episode, "Sisterhooves Social" from almost exactly the same time a season ago, proved to be one of the show's best, and while "Sleepless in Ponyville" isn't at that level, it comes pretty darn close. All the more impressive for a new writer too!

After a fun opening of Scootaloo skating through town set to the punk rock instrumentals William Anderson often uses to underscore the tough, Buttercup-life aspects of her character, complete with her keeling over just because Rainbow Dash offers her approval, we're off to the races with the many strengths the episode displays. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle playing Pony Draughts (complete with horseshoe-shaped pieces!) as they discuss these events, leading to Apple Bloom invites the two of them to join her and Applejack on a camping trip - this sideways glance at the ponies doing something fun to relax is like a low-key version of the spa scene from "Ponyville Confidential". But it has nothing on the character humour and warmth shown in the next scene; Rarity balks at the camping proposal, but when Sweetie Belle says, half sincere and half playing it up, that she just wanted to spend time with her sister, Rarity hems and haws, and then agrees. You can feel the ghost of "Sisterhooves Social" hovering over the writer's shoulders (all the more impressive considering neither Powell nor McCarthy had anything to do with that episode), and I love the end result; this truly feels like the best possible result of characters learning from their past experiences and becoming better ponies for it without it weakening the entertainment value in the newer episode.

That's another thing that's very impressive here; a Scootaloo episode this may be, but it's all wrapped up in what could have easily been a great CMC story all on its own (and in many ways, it still is, as there's plenty of snippets of the two actual sibling pairs doing things throughout the episode). After the previous moment, Rarity and Sweetie Belle are largely reduced to background noise. It would be easy to make the argument of Rarity's vanity getting the better of herself, what with Sweetie Belle hauling all the luggage (pity Spike wasn't invited). But somehow, it ends up not being anywhere near a character-ruining moment as it might seem. Between background gags of the two still enjoying themselves, evidence of Rarity coming prepared actually helping out, and much more (too much to really delve into here, but it's a very nuanced thing in the visual execution), it's fine.

Before I move into the bulk of the episode, one last note. The pacing here is sublime. The episode moves really relaxed and leisurely while still cramming in a lot. By the four-minute mark (35 seconds of that being the theme song) the first camp is already being set up. Running down the list of all the events to that point - the cold opening of Scootaloo's stunt, the CMC discussing it in the clubhouse afterward and Apple Bloom inviting them on a camping trip, Rarity being reluctantly cohered into going along, the start of the trek, them arriving and Rainbow Dash setting up logs and a fire pit - you'd be forgiven for thinking there's no way all that could fit in without feeling super compressed. Yet it doesn't, and has plenty of fun jokes interwoven perfectly around the incident (the handling of the dense pacing here bears comparison to the original Powerpuff Girls). It is as lean and free of waste as any a MLP script as you are likely to find. The rest of the episode isn't as dense as that, largely because at this point the non-pegasi are regelated to background characters once their presence in the episode is set up. But the same mastery is present all the same.

The bulk of the episode plays out as Scootaloo being desperate to impress Rainbow Dash with how cool she is, determined not to show a moment of weakness to her idol in the hope Rainbow Dash will take her under her wing and become her sort-of big sister. This is fine when she's merely stumbling every now and then, but a big problem when a scary campfire story Rainbow Dash tells spooks the three fillies something fierce. They have their big sisters to cuddle up to, but she has both someone who's not the cuddling type, and someone that admitting she needs the cuddling would break the image she's trying to build up. Which in Scootaloo's eyes, that's tantamount to her idol rejecting her. This escalates through a sleepless night of nightmares and her being jumpy as all get out the next day.
It would be so easy to imagine all this playing out ho-hum and on autopilot, so let's stop for a moment and admire the craft going on here. Firstly, the DHX and Top Draw staff really outdid themselves on the nightmare, between the sharp angles and colour scheme, the distorting background, and every other detail present onscreen (it's of course not scary to an adult, but this is scary in a good way to kids, and that counts). And from a writing perspective, that the very tales Rainbow Dash told, through Scootaloo's obsession with not cracking before her idol despite being way spooked by them, become warped in her dreams is a simple, yet clever, touch. It's psychologically accurate, anyway. And those kind of nonsensical spooky stories get into your psyche at that age, regardless if they seem ridiculous to us adults. Between all these elements, the episode delivers stupidly well at all this.

The big other thing often talked about in this episode is in the final third, and we'll get there, but I'll use the second day and the second campfire to dwell on just how well crafted this episode is. MLP is primarily a children's fantasy, and whatever its characters are real and probing and deep, it still plays out as such. But in this episode, I am struck by how much every character motivation and reaction feels very natural and believable (the best example comes later), making the emotionally laden moments hit with full force. They present complex mental processes (it's startling how much the psychology of fears and coping mechanisms is here), and all in shorthand through the writing and animation. But we're not there yet; the comedy of such seemingly ordinary scenes as Scootaloo sleep-skating and trying to get some firewood is enlivened considerably through visual pacing, layout, use of perspective, and so on. Truly phenomenal stuff.

Of course, the lasting impact comes at the end, when the subject of Rainbow Dash's second campfire story, the Headless Horse (one of many reasons this episode echoes "Look Before You Sleep") haunts Scootaloo's dreams intensely enough that Princess Luna intervenes. That the episode does so brilliantly by her feels like a cherry on top of everything else the episode gives us - without diverting focus from Scootaloo's plight for a moment, we get context on Luna being a dreamwalker who guards the dreams of Equestria's citizens (all the fans that had theorised this must have been so happy their Headcannon was validated), deepening her character without ever making the episode about her.

Going back to Scootaloo, who confesses her fears of Rainbow Dash rejecting her should she know she was spooked, there are two things here of note. First is that Luna does not fix the problem, merely give brief cryptic guidance, which suits both her character and lets the episode's ending of Scootaloo confessing under the right emotional pressure feel earned. For the second, consider this: why does Scootaloo still fear the Headless Horse and think about that fear, not Rainbow Dash's rejection, upon waking up, despite focusing on the latter at the dream's end? The emotions in dreams are disconnected from logical connectivity to an extent that they usually don't carry over into our waking state. Imagine of after waking up, Scootaloo gently roused Rainbow Dash and confessed her fears. It's be satisfying, no doubt, but that they don't make the dream the deux ex machina, not the moment of reversal, it's powerfully probing without being nosy about it. All too often in fiction and in MLP, resolutions can involve a bit of psychology or character hand-waving regarding something that wouldn't be so simple in real life. In Seasons 6 onwards this meshes poorly with the resolutions being played more straight-faced, but in these early seasons it's largely fine as since the focus is often on a silly story, the conflict is typically as silly as the reversal that resolves it. But here, it's not that either, and though it would have worked grand as that, it's powerfully startling this way. Also allows Scootaloo to largely resolve the issue herself with only a reminder from Luna. Gives her character more agency.

The rest of the episode wraps up similarly brilliantly - Rainbow Dash saves Scootaloo from her mindless flight through the forest, and after grilling her for an explanation and getting it, has a soft and tender moment where she gives Scootaloo where she wants, with the right amount of sideways swipes (“Hey, I’m gonna tell you something, but if you ever tell anypony else, I’m gonna deny it.”) that makes her feel fully in-character. The denouement plays out in two parts, with all three sibling pairs having awesome moments of bonding as they race through the Winsome Falls (Rarity getting past her non-fondness to run gleefully is delightful), and a final nightmare coda of Rainbow Dash warding off the Olden Pony while Luna visually approves of Scootaloo getting through her fears.

There may not be a better writer debut episode then "Sleepless in Ponyville", with Corey Powell turning in work here on the level of the top efforts of such FiM veterans as Meghan McCarthy, M.A. Larson and Amy Keating Rogers (which makes it all the sadder she only stuck around for a further 3 episode across Seasons 3 and 4, all of which are good but none of which approach the heights of this one by a good bit). Of course, auteur theory is a tricky thing for any cartoon, and there's plenty of evidence of any given episode's merits and detriments being more applicable to the Story Editor at the time. Regardless, as wonderful as the script is, much of the episode's impact and lasting effect comes down to the animation, pacing, layout and other visual areas by those at DHX Media and Top Draw - good animation is a collaborative effort. This is a fantastic episode - if you're looking to see its common placement as the best episode of Season 3 dethroned, you're going to be disappointed.

Just about the only flaws I could find in this episode were some tiny spots of very slight screentime adjustment, possibly trimming slight snippets (about 5-10 seconds apiece) from the sleep-skating, firewood fetching, and the two nightmares to give back a few more moments to the other two sibling pairs (a little resolution for Rarity and Sweetie Belle, despite it being fine without it, wouldn't go amiss), as what we do get there still strengthens the episode so much. Apple Bloom and Applejack being so comfy with everything to do with the camping is very nice, for instance. As a side note, Rainbow Dash had not one jerkish moment throughout, played only as her true self that's slightly dense but never mean-spirited. It's easily her best showing since "Hurricane Fluttershy".

Much of Season 3 to this point has felt bigger, more turbocharged, more action-packed then the prior two seasons, but at the slight cost of the gentle, homespun, domestic feel of those seasons getting marginally displaced (this is obviously a tiny complaint compared to how misplaced it would get later in the show's run). But this episode is the perfect Season 1 throwback, echoing "Look Before You Sleep" in both a limited cast and the plot involving the characters spending the night with each other. Yet it carries the strengths gained throughout Season 2 as well. It is, perhaps, not as funny or emotionally probing as "Sisterhooves Social" or "Hurricane Fluttershy" (I wouldn't reach for it on a rewatch as much as those two) but this episode is still a phenomenal achievement that everyone involved should feel very proud of. Doesn't hurt it deepens Scootaloo's character in past episodes too! "Sleepless in Ponyville" gets a 9.5/10.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS
- There is so, SO much else the episode does brilliantly I didn't even touch on. The little touches of detail in the script and visuals, from Rainbow Dash flying off with money on the opening and returning later with a juicebox, to the nightmare trees looking very much like those from the mission to stop Nightmare Moon, to Rainbow Dash actually snoring like her fake snoring in "Read It and Weep", to Applejack's role as the solid, dependable pony (it's clear she knows what's going on, but doesn't want to press the issue - a few seconds of her seeing Scootaloo handled it at the end, and being proud, would have been nice, but would have just repeated Luna doing the same) and so much more. I could gush all day about this one.
- It had to be mentioned again, the episode is so dense with script and animated action, being a master of using shorthand to great effect.
- We can see Luna briefly in the first dream, and I find myself greatly admiring that she doesn't interfere, choosing to let the nightmare continue. As we'll see the next time she dreamwalks, Luna seems to adopt a profound stance of allowing someone to be pushed just slightly beyond what they think they're capable of, as part of an ultimately beneficial and important process of personal growth. It's really quite profound.

Comments ( 5 )

100% agree, I loved this episode back then, and still do. Not just for being the first focus episode for Scoots but also Luna's first opportunity to really shine. That glimpse of Luna through the trees was as much of a surprise to fans as it was to Scoots - at this time, due to her sporadic appearances, she had more mystique that she does today - and her presence really makes this episode feel special to me. It also marks the start of a (maybe not intentional) arc of CMC dream episodes over the next few seasons :)

5252657
My, how we were spoiled with episodes like these, my friend, eh? Not that there aren't great ones even in the later seasons - there are - but nothing beats a lot of these stellar early efforts. It truly must have been great to experience them as they were new. But, they're still here now, and for the most part, time has not diminished their impact.

That glimpse of Luna through the trees was as much of a surprise to fans as it was to Scoots - at this time, due to her sporadic appearances, she had more mystique that she does today - and her presence really makes this episode feel special to me.

I'll bet the reaction during the live streams of this episode's airing at Luna's appearance, both behind the trees and later in the flesh, was something else. But I see your point - up to now, the only appearance of Luna since the series' first two-parter was in "Luna Eclipsed" and small cameos in "A Canterlot Wedding" and "The Crystal Empire". In later seasons especially she often appears with Celestia simply to exposit the current problem to Twilight and the others, or to be briefly worfed, and most of the mystique you speak of, past her being a Dreamwalker, is largely gone. But rewatching the series at this pace, I'm understanding better what made Luna tick in the minds of fans. And the best bit? Luna isn't even that big a part of this episode, she's only like the fifth biggest thing in it, yet it's still handled with such skill, saying so much about her through shorthand.
As for the other CMC dream episodes, I'm really looking forward to one of those. The other... slightly less so, more for it just being bland rather then anything. But they certainly continue Luna's caring yet hands-off approach to helping the dreams' of others, so gotta love them for that.

Wonderful review, especially loved the parts when you talked about the psychological aspects of the episode and the production value. I even agree about the little things like being spectacular but not quite having the emotional punch of Sisterhooves Social and Hurricane Fluttershy (personally, I think Sisterhooves Social is just a higher 9.5 but I haven't watched it in quite a while). Frankly, the only parts I disagreed with were when you brought up Season 6 onward doing worse and Inspiration Manifestation. I haven't watched the later seasons as a whole in a while, but while these problems sometimes exist, I don't think it's that sharp a contrast to the earlier seasons, at least definitely not in Season 6 (I'm one of the only people on the planet that thinks that's one of the best and most consistent seasons). Maybe in Season 7 and 8 though (Have similar thought on Season 9, though it's probably closer to what you say there than in season 6). I also find it curious that you say Corey Powell's other episodes were all good but not close to this. Most people don't like Just for Sidekicks and Rainbow Falls (though I guess you tend to like the disliked episodes in the earlier seasons more than most), and Inspiration Manifestation is considered fantastic.

5252915
I didn't say Season 6 onwards was worse. Just more straight-faced in the resolution. And if you didn't know, I found the show with the Movie right after Season 7 had finished, and binged the whole show in two months before seeing new episodes for the last two seasons, so it's not me have rose-tinted glasses for the earlier stuff; an episode like this one is only a month older to me then something like "Shadow Play".
I don't want to say too much about the later seasons right now (in most reviews I cut out mentions of them; I keep it only if I feel it strengthens the point I'm making here, which it did for this one). But Seasons 6/7 are mostly just a weaker continuation then the previous stuff, similar in principle if not in execution to what you'd see in any long-running cartoon. Still perfectly watchable, generally speaking. The episodes are mostly just decent and mediocre rather then good and great. Season 8/9 are a different story, but we'll save that for another day.

Lol, I didn't even mention "Inspiration Manifestation"! That's quite an extrapolation to make from Powell's other three episodes not being at the level of this one. This is the best of the season, that's not easily reached. I don't want to say much about them until I get to them. But I'm fond enough of "Just for Sidekicks" and find the abuse given to "Rainbow Falls" by most viewers totally uncalled for. My memories on "Inspiration Manifestation are a bit fuzzy right now, but I remember it being plenty good in its own right. But I was reasonably sure none were at this one's level - doesn't mean they can't still be really good in their own right.

Actually, regarding me disliking the usually-disliked episodes in the earlier seasons more then most, that's not the case at all. In fact, just as often I find them to be under-appreciated gems in their own right. Excepting cases like "Over A Barrel" where I admit as a non-American I'm probably never going to fully understand a context that I don't think is offensive at all (and where I compensated by giving it a lower score then I would have otherwise - hence the 7.5 where I personally rate it higher in entertainment value) I often found them to be underrated little gems in their own right. "Dragon Quest" does not remotely deserve being called one of the weakest in the first three seasons. Without spoiling much, the upcoming "Spike At Your Service" is not nearly as problematic as many cite. In general I find the harsh treatment given to Merriweather Williams totally unfair. The problems people cite in her episodes are largely true, but blown way out of proportion. Another episode I rate higher then you might expect is "Family Appreciation Day".
There are more I could cite, but those are the obvious examples. Even with "Owls Well That Ends Well", I found the opening and closing 6 minutes to be largely the high Season 1 quality, just let down by a weaker middle overloaded with cringe moments. Life's full of surprises. And rest assured, there's a good balance of the expected opinions and contrarian but rationalised ones here.

5252935
Straight faced is what I mean by worse. I can't think of it off the top of my head but I'm sure there are plenty of examples of not straight-faced resolutions. Also even a little wait could develop some rose tinted glasses in a certain way, but I'm not gonna claim I know you more than you do.

Well, in ways I agree about season 6 and 7 being a weaker continuation of previous stuff, but I feel like in some ways those seasons mastered some elements of the show (for example, the naturalness of the dialogue and comedy sort of reached its peak around this time for me, at least from memory, in fact, that's why season 7 used to be my favourite), while also being worse in some aspects (redemptions and a sort of black and white morality in some cases comes to mind).

Well, to be honest, I won't be too sure about Inspiration Manifestation's quality myself until I get to it in my reviewing it (speaking of, you've already caught up to me even though you started after I started Season 3 because I became so slow :rainbowlaugh: ), but I'm pretty sure it's at least really great.

Uh..."I guess you tend to like the disliked episodes in the earlier seasons more than most." Also, it's funny, I actually think Over A Barrel fares better quality wise than entertainment wise, though I agree about Dragon Quest and Spike At Your Service, Merriweather Williams, and Family Appreciation Day.

I very rarely cringe at anything, including mlp, and I don't really think of it as a criticism, as finding something cringy or not is very subjective, and explaining why it's cringy is much more productive (though I assume you did in your review). I think the episode was really good, especially the evil Spike scene, but then again, I wasn't very good at analyzing back in Season 1 (I just reread my review to recall my thoughts and my analyzation hasn't exactly aged as well as I'd hoped).

And rest assured, there's a good balance of the expected opinions and contrarian but rationalised ones here.

(high fives)

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