A Brony Tale isn’t as fun as it should be, but it does manage to say a lot of interesting things about stereotypes and fandom.
A Brony TaleDirector: Brent Hodge
Cast: Ashleigh Ball
Distributor: Virgil Films and Entertainment
US DVD Release Date: 2014-08-19
No one sets out to be a Brony. It doesn’t show up on anyone’s to-do list. It just happens.
If you’re not familiar with the term, Bronies are adult male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and there are a lot more of them out there than you think. Enough to have their own convention: BronyCon.
The new documentary A Brony Tale is a spirited exploration of Brony fandom, told rather temperately from the vantage point of voice actor Ashleigh Ball. Ball, the voice of My Little Pony characters Rainbow Dash and Applejack, spends the film attempting to understand and navigate Brony culture when she’s invited to BronyCon 2012 in New York City. Director Brent Hodge, a friend of Ball’s, takes advantage of the unique perspective of a celebrity relatively unfamiliar with her show’s hopelessly devoted fanbase.
When the newest incarnation of My Little Pony first aired on television, fans would apparently be quick to tell you it brought with it strong values like kindness, generosity, loyalty, friendship, and honesty. As A Brony Tale suggests, it’s these values, as much as the colorful female ponies, that have unexpected enriched the lives of male viewers.
Even so, there’s a reasonable expectation for this particular branch of fanaticism, dedicated to animated magical ponies, to be, well, creepy. Like Ball says early in the film, before her journey into understanding Bronies begins, “The pervert alarm, for sure, went off in my head when I first heard about it.”
The film tackles the absurdity of these nonconformist male fans heads on; though, in their defense, except for the obsession with My Little Pony, the interviewees seem to be perfectly normal guys. Meanwhile, Hodge intentionally avoids presenting any stereotypes in his storytelling process.
The first Brony viewers meet, about 10 minutes into the documentary, is “the world’s manliest Brony”, a motorcycle-riding, beer-drinking, manly man with a handlebar moustache who also just so happens to love My Little Pony more than your seven-year-old niece.
He praises the show, in between gulps of ale, saying, “Don't think of it as six little ponies. Think of it as six friends learning from each other… I like what I like. I don't need society to tell me what I like.”
The film spends its 78 minutes weaving between featurettes about all sorts of eclectic individual Bronies while periodically checking in with Ball. From fitness gurus to shy high schoolers to soldiers, the movie showcases a wide range of Brony personalities. There’s a folk musician, performing as MandoPony, who writes entire albums of otherwise beautiful music about the ponies’ homeland of Equestria.
Hodge even talks with psychologists who have made the complicated task of explaining why guys become Bronies their primary research interest. The documentary, which spends a few minutes showing grown males buying pink collectibles in the “girl” section of a toy store, raises plenty of questions about gender norms and expectations, but Hodge really never explores these quandaries with enough depth.
We get to see the effect the Bronies have had on Ball’s career, including growing the success of her band, with Bronies turning out in droves to see the group Hey Ocean perform. Ball’s portions of the documentary are less revealing than when spotlights are placed on each Brony. However, no matter how much footage of voice acting you’ve seen, there’s nothing quite like the alarming, enjoyable bizarreness of seeing an actor of Ball’s caliber effortlessly slip in and out of many different character voices. And it’s strangely endearing to watch Ball prepare for fan questions by watching YouTube days before BronyCon, as she’s started to discover exactly how much of a pop culture phenomenon her show has become. Like she says, “Who makes these videos, man?”
Enough cannot be said about the film’s association with the talented Morgan Spurlock, best known as the director of Super Size Me. Spurlock, an executive producer of A Brony Tale, brings a rock star level of name recognition in the world of documentary filmmaking and rightfully has used his celebrity to bring more attention to this peculiar movie. However, when it comes to directing impeccable documentaries, Hodge is no Spurlock—at least not yet.
This documentary’s exploration of Brony culture is not as funny as you might expect. Not that it should be laughably horsing around with the subject matter. But it takes itself too seriously at times. You get empathy as a viewer, and lots to ponder, but you’re still not exactly sold on why grown men in their twenties, thirties and forties would bother to watch such a show or what it says about our culture. To borrow a line from the cartoon, one that’s discussed in depth in the film itself, the documentary “needs to be about 20 percent cooler.”
While the Kickstarter-funded documentary Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony focused more on the backlash, embarrassment and bullying that can result from loving My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Hodge’s film is primarily a story of glee. Ball’s insider’s viewpoint also makes this one stand out from other Brony documentaries—yes, there are several—but this ends up being a double-edged sword. Her presence sometimes suggests an especially commercial tone.
The documentary ends up often feeling more like a commercial for Ball’s side projects and the cartoon show itself than an energetic investigation into the lifestyle of its fans. Ball smiles for the camera and is remarkably likeable, but she also spends plenty of time pushing other interests like her band Hey Ocean; the group and their music appear several times in a non-sequitur fashion. Meanwhile, the film could have easily benefited by including insight from others involved in the production of the popular cartoon.
Nevertheless, one Brony in particular, an Army National Guard vet named Bryan, steals the spotlight of the film in the relatively few minutes he’s shown and, at least briefly, gives it a worthwhile level of profundity. He tells the camera of his difficult, damaging experiences while serving in Iraq but also of renewed passion for creating art that came solely through My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It’s an engaging story as he hopes to present his artwork to a star of the cartoon at BronyCon. Nothing else in the film has quite the payoff for viewers as seeing footage of him hug Nicole Oliver, who plays Princess Celestia on the show, and present her with a piece of his original artwork at BronyCon.
Even here though, a post-BronyCon interview with Bryan, which is woefully missing, would have encapsulated and justified the film much more than its actual conclusion, which features a montage of Bronies dancing in a parking lot. For a documentary almost entirely devoted to how people’s lives are better from watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, this meaningful, happy ending feels strangely absent. If the filmmakers could have talked to guys like Bryan about their BronyCon experiences—instead of just ending with more of Ball’s post-Con reflections and a Hey Ocean song—that would have made A Brony Tale more than a story of loyalty and friendship; it’d be documenting magic.