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1 December 2013

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic "Castle Mane-ia"

There is a problem within this fandom. It’s not a problem that should really be all that big but give a fandom a problem and it will inflate it so much you’ll think the Hindenburg was but a meek balloon in comparison. It’s not even all that big when it comes to how important it is, and other problems kind of overshadow it, but it’s big for me because of how constant and consistent it is. The problem is that we look too deep into things. There is always that one (or nowadays more than one) person who is always going to sharpen a scene, a moment or a dialogue and squeeze every single hidden meaning out of it. Subtext exists in My Little Pony and it can be used to provide an enjoyable experience for both children and adults, but it’s not there in every episode, and we shouldn't shun those lacking it for not having enough subtext to shame Kafka.

Case in point, “Castle-Mane-ia”.

What a terrible night to have a TL;DR. While the episode is simple in its structure and narrative it supplies enough comedy and beautiful visuals to make up for it. If you want to know more then scroll down, no need to wait for the morning to come.

The story and development of “Castle-Mane-ia” is so simple and direct that it’s not even worth it for me to go scene by scene telling you what happens. We see Twilight Sparkle trying to find clues as to what that mysterious chest that she found inside the Tree of Harmony is, when she receives a letter from Princess Celestia. Celestia tells her that she should go explore the abandoned library at the Castle of the Two Sisters on the edge of the Everfree Forest, to which she gladly agrees, finding there a treasure trove full of knowledge. She decides to stay there for the night to investigate, despite Spike being scared to death of it.

"Good thing I didn't forget to pack my overwhelming adorkableness!"
In the meantime we have Applejack and Rainbow Dash trying to prove each other which one is the most daring pony doing a bee-staring competition while wearing beekeeping suits. But when the easy-Nicolas-Cage-joke competition ends with them tied, and with Pinkie Pie bailing on them from keeping score to go ring the school bell, they decide to rise the tempo and try to stay for an entire night in the Castle of the Two Sisters, and whoever gets spooked first is the least wins.

Okay, so whoever looks the stupidest wins too, right?
And on a third and last story line we have Rarity and Fluttershy going to the same castle, this time because Rarity wanted to find one of the old tapestries left in there to use it as a base for her future line of clothing, while also restoring it for the sake of keeping one of Equestria’s cultural treasures preserved.

The Element of Grave Robbing, everybody.
What follows is the biggest string of visual and practical humor this series has ever had. Friendship is Magic is not a stranger when it comes to practical comedy, and there have been episodes that focus heavily on it, but this one is set to break a record because it throws jokes at you in every single scene, in every single moment, and with every single facial expression, line of dialogue, and character interaction. It does rely almost entirely on all the ponies getting scared of each other without knowing it, and on a very creative organ that’s played by a shadowy pony that activates trapdoors and walls to move on their own when certain keys are played.

It’s during the climax of these situations when Twilight finally realizes that her friends are in the castle losing their minds since they think they have been haunted by a ghost, believed to come out of Nightmare Moon’s remains, known as the Pony of Shadows. Braving the ominous sound of this old pipe organ the ponies venture into the room to reveal who the player is, who happens to be none other than Pinkie Pie. The episode ends with the Mane Six learning that sometimes your imagination can give you a rough time and that a good friend should help you keep it under control, and also that the best way to not be scared about the future is to learn from the past and keep it in mind.

They also learnt not to leave Pinkie Pie near organs ever again. It gets...bloody messy.
So how does this episode stand up on its own when it happens to have a lot of story going on but in the end it’s actually so simple and easy to follow? There are many key factors to this, so let’s take a look at each one of these and see how this one fairs out, especially since it’s the debut of a new writer in the show.

For starters, the tone and atmosphere of the episode is pretty great. I am one of those guys who loves bottle episodes, that is episodes where a small group of characters stays in one location and relies heavily on the way they interact with each other. This show has had a couple of these already (Look before you sleep, The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000) but this is by far the most interesting just for the setting alone. The Castle of the Two Sisters is one the most fascinating locations we have ever been presented to in the world of Equestria, and every single room in it screams Gothic and Hammer-Horror-Movie with a passion. The darkly lit corridors full of spiky and spooky armors, or the narrow hallways with disembodied pony legs, or the wide open throne room and its crumbling ceiling, or the very ominous altar where the Elements of Harmony used to be. Just for the production design and visual look this episode is one that stands out amongst the rest. Having these characters in these really dark but very interesting environments makes them pop out and amps the immersion in the world they present to us. But not only does it look and feels creepy, it also looks and feels like a lot of fun. Every step the Mane Six take can trigger another trapdoor, or fake wall, or carrot dispenser mechanism. It’s a classic trope that I have never seen used in this show, and here they exploit it really well.

This library sucks, all there is here is "Hunger Games" books.
The other aspect that really worked for me was the characters and what Josh Haber did with them. I have to say right away that he totally nailed the personality, quirks and shades of every single one of the Mane Six. Twilight was unspeakable levels of adorkable in this episode. The moment she steps into the abandoned library and her eyes go wide as saucers is just perfect. She flaps her wings, flies up, hops onto a pile of books and starts reading them right away. Her innocence and marvel is contagious, and shows how much she treasures knowledge and information, and how happy and pumped she is to go discover what these books have to offer.

Yes! Michael Crichton's unfinished novel!
Rainbow Dash and Applejack have a good chemistry between each other, as they are the ones that usual knock heads and get ready to fight each other to see who’s best as insert-challenge-of-the-week-here. It feels very much like how they were in Season 1, minus the constant animosity and Rainbow Dash constantly cheating. It’s not a rivalry between rivals, but a rivalry between two really good friends. They don’t argue or get angry at each other, and when the both of them get lost they start looking for the other while trying to avoid dying for a fear-induced heart attack.

Silliness induced heart attack is also a possibility.
Fluttershy was also pretty cool, not just because of how terrified she was of being trapped inside this castle, but because of how brave she was to ignore her own fears to go find for Angel. It did feel like she got the end of the rope in terms of screen time, but what little we got of her was pretty good. Pinkie Pie was also another one that got shafted when it comes to screen time, but she makes up for it by being absolutely fucking hilarious. It’s been a while since we've had an episode where Pinkie Pie was 100% completely funny, and this episode has it, from how she takes notes on her notebook, to how she rings the school bell or her playing the organ and talking her imagination bringing her cake.

Once again, there's Fluttershy's ass, in all its glory.
But by far the absolute best character of them all in the entire episode is, you guessed it, Rarity. You know me and my obsession with Rarity, and how much I love her, and how awesome she is, and how cool she is, and all that, but if Pinkie Pie was the funniest then Rarity was the most entertaining…and funniest. She starts the episode getting her hooves muddy and it only goes worse for her in the getting dirty department. It’s always such a joy to abuse the prissy girl, make her suffer and give her a rough time by torturing her beauty, and in here Rarity gets her mane ruined and full of branches and leaves, she gets trashed, dirtied, roughed up, stained, and it’s even better because she then stands up for herself ready to fight back, because she ain't going to have any of it. Her facial expressions were outrageously funny, and Tabitha’s St. Germain acting just goes complete nuts. It gets better because she does have a bit of an arc going on. She starts the episode wanting to get her hooves on one of the tapestries, but when the quest proves to be so hazardous to her beauty she has a change of heart and decides to just restore one of them and leave them there, almost like making a truce with the castle that almost grinded her alive.

I are such fabulous hoers.
If I should frown at anything regarding the characters that would all be focused around Spike. I like the little guy alright, but I think they made him a bit too much of a scared cat. He starts the episode just alright, and he even helps Twilight with her research in one scene, but the rest of the episode is just him, hugging a cushion, and hiding under a chaise-long, jumping from fear at every time he hears a creepy sound. It can be fun in a couple of scenes, but when his whole character is based around this it goes from funny to just boring.

There is no doubt that the comedy is the strongest point of this episode. The comedy here is spot on, well timed to the second, and perfect. I did say that from the moment the Mane Six are all inside the castle what follows is the longest string of practical and visual jokes this show has ever had, but what’s surprising is how all of these jokes work. This is because we are seeing the characters being miserable in a situation where they don’t have all the information, however we as an audience know what is going on, so seeing how they act not knowing what the hell is happening is what triggers the comedy. When we see Fluttershy screaming in terror because she thinks her bunny Angel has been crushed by a stone pillar we don’t think “Oh my God, this is horrible” because we know Angel is safe and sound, we instead think “Oh you stupid ditz, you are going to look so silly when you find out”. Comedy, and more specifically practical and slapstick comedy, relies heavily on misery, so when you throw a group of characters in a setting where it’s guaranteed they will suffer greatly what you get is a concoction of pure hilarity. I will admit though, not everybody enjoys this type of comedy. If you liked movies like “The Producers”, “The Naked Gun” or any of the Evil Dead movies directed by Sam Raimi, then you will enjoy this episode. To me there is not one joke that feels out of place or badly delivered, they all come in time and tie in between each other really well.

Oh, your suffering only makes my laughter harder.
So you’d say that Josh Haber’s debut in Friendship is Magic has left me with a very positive feeling, right? Well, the keyword here is “feeling”, and most important how the feelings this episode seep into you change your perception of it. I’m pretty sure everyone can see what I have already mentioned, but I wonder how many will feel transported to when they were kids watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons in their pajamas and a bowl of cereal on their laps. My Little Pony has always carried that sense of wonderment and nostalgia that clicks with so many of its fans. It’s a really sweet reminder that we were once kids and it feels like a pick-me-up before going back to being an adult. I felt teleported back to when I was a little twerp and I was watching “Scooby Do” on TV and, what do you know, Josh Haber was literally aiming for that! He said on his Twitterthat he wrote this episode because he wanted to feel like a child again,watching Scooby Do in his living room, and the episode hits every single one of the nails in the head, all the way down to the moment when they reveal that the one behind all the secret-door-activating was the first character that disappears at the start. It’s a callback to nostalgic cartoons that works really well, and a very sweet way to keep in touch with the past while also looking forward to the future, kind of like how the Mane Six learn that knowing about the past makes future problems less scary.

Scooby Dash: Friendship Inc.
It’s also a really intelligent way to set up a new lesson delivery device. Season 3, and even parts of Season 2, were quite scarce when it comes to having a moral. Hell, there were episodes that had no moral at all, but it looks like now instead of letters to the Princess we are going to have a Diary of the Mane Six to write on. Will that be an indication that the show is going to become a lot more introspective and deep? I am here wishing it probably will.

If I was to fault the episode for something that would be the ending. I don’t refer to when they deliver the moral, or when they were all sitting together in the same room doing their own thing. Those scenes were really nice and gave natural progression to the tone the entire episode was having, but then we have the decaffeinated version of a jump scare. I really need to address this. I hate movies and TV shows that give jump scares or fake out cliffhangers when they are ending. There are movies like “Sinister” where they are ending and then all of a sudden something comes right at you screaming and then crashes into credits. And then there are movies like “The Conjuring” where they end with creepy sounding music and a scary atmosphere, but where they cut to credits without throwing anything at you. Try and guess which one this episode had to go with and why does it piss me off. I hope this builds up for something in upcoming episodes of the season. I really hope we see this shadowy figure with glowing yellow eyes come back, because if we don’t then I will just have to mark this as poor narrative, and that will hurt me. The entire episode is perfect, but it wouldn't get a perfect numeric score from me because of that possible fake out.

Ah, the armor that I touched moved and it was horrible!
Overall, this is a great episode, and another great debut from a new writer in Friendship is Magic. It had a lot of comedy, a lot of character, a great setting, a great set of morals, a very interesting new storytelling device, hauntingly beautiful visuals, lots of atmosphere, great pacing, and a satisfying conclusion. I fault it for its ending, but judging twenty two minutes of pure hilarity just because of the last five seconds would be unfair.

Note to Mr. Haber: Rarity has to suffer a lot more. Signed, James.
I am definitely looking forward to more episodes written by Josh Haber, especially now that I know he loves writing for Best Pony and, if the way he wrote her in this episode is an indication of anything, I think I will be looking forward to my new favorite episode in the entire series.

- Defining Moment: Anything involving Rarity, Fluttershy, Twilight, and the constant sense of humor that emanates from this episode.

- Morals: You shouldn't let your imagination get the best of you, and keeping the past into account is the best way to face future problems, even the scary ones.


  1. I always enjoy reading these from you.

    There were moments I thought Luna was the one playing the organ.

  2. I've felt that whatever episode was going to folllow an event as big full of world-building as "Princess Twilight Sparkle", it was always going to suffer in comparison, especially from fans coming from the deep analysis side of the community. I think that not every episode is made the same and this episode is a good example of why.

    I didn't think much when I first watched the episode (beyond the ending with the journal), but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how suprisingly refreshing the episode was. Looking at the entire last year of MLP, just about every moment (with the possible exception of Apple Family Reunion and Spike At Your Service), every episode felt like it was some sort of big event, or building towards something bigger. From the Crystal Empire, to Discord's reformation, to Twilight becoming a princess, to even Equestria Girls, for the last year or so every MLP moment felt like it was supposed to be a big deal. Even smaller scale episodes felt like they were doing big things: a new CMC, Scootaloo's first solo episode, the return of Trixie, RD going to the Wonderbolt Academy, and so on. Even smaller episodes felt like they were trying new unexpected things with their gimmicks, like how Just For Sidekicks focused on the pets or how Games Ponies Play would set up the later-established Equestria Games story. Castle-mania is the first episode in a long time that, with the exception of introducing the journal of the Mane 6, devotes itself to nothing but the main characters being silly for a while. As a result, the tone and feel of the episode feels like something from Season 1 or sometime in the middle of Season 2.

    I have developed a personal headcannon that the castle was kind of a playhouse for Luna and Celestia when they were growing up.

    Regarding the Pony of Shadows, I get the feeling that we won't be seeing him again and the ending was the episode being spooky just for the sake of being spooky. Some people think we're going to get another villain out of this, but given how we already have one overarching story with The Box, and given how the few upcoming episodes (Daring Do, Equestria Games, Power Ponies, etc.) there's no information that seems to indicate that will be the case (for now, anyway). Besides, considering that its origin story is just a ghost story from Granny Smith, it doesn't feel like it could be a very interesting villain.

    Some fans say they feel disappointed because the episode only teased more development of the mystery box story. Personally, I think that with this episode, it's been established that the show will continue its usual format of non-two part episodes being their own self-contained stories (with a few exceptions) while tossing major hints at the mystery box here and there, and there's nothing wrong with that. I expect this to be kind of a more beefed up version of the Gala arc from Season 1.

    Part of me feels like I should give the episode some grief because of the journal thing because I was expecting that without the letters to the princess, the show wouldn't have to force a lesson at the end of every episode, and give itself more freedom in terms of storytelling. Still, if the show plans to continue this, the journal is a very good substitute. At this point, the girls have pretty much learnt everything they need to know about friendship. The challenge now is to preserve that friendship. They already know that there will be times when they will be at odds, but they can use that to make their friendship stronger, and sharing the journal is a very good way to do that. It wouldn't make sense for the girls to keep writing to Celestia, or if the girls wrote to Twilight. Twilight sees her friends as her equals and they are all learning together.

  3. "The problem is that we look too deep into things."

    Thank you! While I'm all for analysis, it shouldn't take over your thoughts so much that you forget to enjoy a fun and silly episode. While most people seem to have liked the episode for what it was, there's a few people I've seen who's reactions have been aggravating.

    "If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts / Then repeat to yourself 'It's just a show; I should really just relax' "

  4. Great review as usual.

  5. Thanks for the great review!

    I had a lot of fun with this episode. It was hilarious and the visuals were really spooky. My rating is 4-/5 (the grades I use, in an increasing sequence: 1, 2, 2+, 3-, 3, 3+, 4-, 4, 5).
    I liked all the main characters (maybe except Pinkie) and the interactions between them. On the other side, this was a just-for-fun kind of episode, with no deep message. The moral was just thrown in at the end and it didn't feel organic. Not that I say it is an unacceptable thing. There have to be some of this kind of episodes in a full season, as there have to be moral-centric ones, and so on. It is just the main reason that I gave 4-/5 instead of 5/5.

    I deeply agree with you, there were awesome measures of practical humor in it. To say, it is the strongest point. For example, I laughed hard when poor Fluttersy was crying at the end as she thought Angel got smashed.

    Big plus point goes for the location. The old ruined castle is a perfect spot for this kind of story, moreover it yields the story by itself. The mean trap doors were really funny; I cannot understand how they work, though. Maybe just Pinkie Pie knows :)
    I liked that the whole situation is caused by a sequence of random coincidences. The ponies don't know about each other -except Pinkie-, however, each of them has a personal and -more importantly- believable reason to be there.

    Omg, RD and AJ were so cuuuute! They were being cooperative instead of competitive, a warmly welcomed improvement in their character. Actually, all of the interactions between the pairs were pretty good.

    Best moments: everything involving Rarity! I would say, James, you and I are definitely on the same side, if "Who is best pony?" comes to question. I'm a big Rarity-fan too! Furthermore, I love Tabitha St. Germain's voice. It's full of colors and shades. Perfect for Rarity!

    Best scene award: The castle tries to kill Rarity with a piece of stone after she blamed it for being so ungraceful. Priceless!

    As you wrote, the Journal of the Two Sisters was an interesting development. I also wish, the more moral-centric episodes come back soon.

    So, are there anything that I disliked? Yes, of course.

    RD was more frightened than Fluttershy, which felt somehow unusual - even if it supposed to be a consequence of the setting.

    Pinkie, Pinkie, my dear Pinkie ... Why do you have to be so out of character every time you raise your precious head? At least, it wasn't so bad as in the previous two parter.
    She wasn't completely funny, but had some worthwhile moments. The organ-play was quite good, but her lines were totally silly and irrelevant. Maybe it's just me, who is too sensitive to Pinkie Pie, but she is, somehow, an indicator of the quality, like a salamander in a stream.

    I know, Spike and Angel have the potential to be entertaining, but they were rather boring here. Perhaps, one of the forthcoming episodes will prove otherwise.

    Finally, here are my uneasy questiones:
    Why are those invaluable books still there, in that old ruined castle? Those should have a better place in the Canterlot Library.
    Why in the applebucking name of Celestia would Pinkie play terrifying songs on that organ?

    All in all, my conclusion is that "Castle Mania" is a funny and entertaining episode with strong interactions between the characters, but with less moral as usual. Josh Haber did a good job.

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