Welcome to Figures & Speech, Nerdist’s regular column by, for, and about grown-ups who still play with their toys but might want to know more before they buy. From product reviews to informed editorials, these are most definitely the articles that’ll make you want to strike a pose.
It’s been a tough week on the emotions for many, and in what I swear is a coincidence of timing, I think I have the right dose of happiness for today’s column. Let’s not lose any friends over anything in the real world, because, after all…friendship is magic.
A funny thing happened when Hasbro started to market the relaunch of their My Little Pony brand that had been big in the ’80s–the marketing overtook the actual product. Friendship Is Magic, which updated the look of the ponies to a simpler, more cartoony and expressive style than the generic girl-toy cuteness of the originals, was just supposed to be a cartoon that sold toys, but under the guiding hand of Lauren Faust, it became something else entirely. Just as Peter Cullen’s voice had elevated Transformers cartoons with a gravitas that may not have been apparent in the original concept, Faust’s smart, funny, and positive writing made Friendship Is Magic so popular that for the first time, boys felt okay to say they liked it. And then so did grown men. There were documentaries made about them, and conventions that attracted just as many of the newly dubbed “Bronies” as female fans. It’s safe to say the current iteration of My Little Pony is far more beloved than the property’s prior incarnation ever was, and a theatrical movie is headed our way in a year or so.
And yet the toys, for the longest time, didn’t reflect any of this. Hasbro stuck to what they knew–mostly un-articulated ponies with combable hair. Fans begged for toys of characters created for the show, like the parody hybrid Doctor Whooves and the villain/antihero Discord, but it took third-party licensees to make these, as the core line stayed resolutely true to formula (though there have been mini-playsets based on the show in more recent years). It’s possible Hasbro was worried at first that the male fans were unsavory, and not without cause; anyone with nerdy proclivities and an Internet connection is no doubt aware of the some of the more unpleasant indulgences of certain fans with, shall we say, no filters. But as time and Brony-Cons have proven, there isn’t just a mainstream male Pony fandom that prefers more articulated/accurate action figures to traditionally feminine hair-combing dolls, but there’s also a substantial portion of female fans nowadays who prefer them too.
Guardians of Harmony is Hasbro’s attempt to rectify this. And it’s a good one. Note that unlike Mattel, which misstepped in putting only photos of boys on the box art of role-play toys for the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, Hasbro is clear:
Girls and boys…playing together? MADNESS! And genius.
One thing the big H did learn from the big M is to subdivide the line into collector-focused figures and kid-focused toys, but keep them all in the same scale, as Mattel has done well with their WWE line. I may have issues with how they define what collectors want versus what kids want, but we’ll get to that.
Basic figures, which retail at just under $10, include an interesting assortment. Rather than making all the “Mane 6” primary protagonists upfront, the first wave includes Pinkie Pie, Shadowbolts, Rainbow Dash, and Shining Armor. Pinkie and Shadow were the ones included in our review samples.
Pinkie Pie, arguably the signature character of the show, is my own personal favorite character as she reminds me of my wife Julia, with her enthusiasm for all things cute, affinity for pink, and ability to smile through gritted teeth when she’s feeling something the opposite of happy. Like all the other ponies in the basic figure assortment (they share body parts, which makes sense given how similarly most of them are drawn), she has ball-jointed shoulders, elbows, and tail, hinged rear legs, and a hinge/swivel combination on the neck that allows for standing-up or all-fours poses. She comes with a party cannon that fires a rubber chicken (presumably Cheese Sandwich’s pal Boneless) and a removable Patton-style helmet.
To the fans, this is highly episode-specific. But to toy companies, it also fits their paradigm of “boy play pattern,” which is to say good versus bad, using weapons and vehicles to defeat the other side. Friendship Is Magic, the show, doesn’t neatly fit into that box, but as we’ll continue to see, this toy line tries to. Anyway, the cannon features a pull-back-and-release spring that isn’t particularly strong; you will NOT shoot your eye out with Pinkie Pie.
Shadowbolts are an odd choice for first series toys relative to the show, as the dark versions of the Wonderbolts, created by the villainous Nightmare Moon, had one episode in the first season. But again, this is a boy’s play pattern–if your villains are limited, give them an army-builder, i.e. a character like a Stormtrooper that kids might by multiples of. Shadowbolt comes with a clip-on lightning bolt, removable sunglasses, and the unrelated villain Cockatrice. Wings are ball-jointed.
At the $20 price point, we get a mini-vehicle with a figure, and it’s Cheese Sandwich, the Pony party planner voiced by Weird Al Yankovic. Again, a one-episode character, but likely included because of both Weird Al’s fan base, and the fact that this is the closest thing to a combat vehicle Hasbro could market at this scale while being reasonably show accurate, though the proportions of the tank have been cheated quite a bit.
The package is “try-me” style, so you get to pull down the lever and make the barrel rapidly go in and out a couple of times, which it does before firing a chicken. And there’s no way around this–it kinda feels suggestive in the worst way. Adding to that impression is the way the little demo photo is enclosed in a circle-arrow shape that looks just like the international male symbol Austin Powers wears around his neck. Probably coincidence, but again, I’ve been online, and I’ve seen some of the more awful sides of adult Pony fandom. There are folks who’ll take it as a sign.
The party tank has foot pegs on the back for a driver, but they aren’t tight. They really just help balance the driver a little better; he or she will totally fall off if you play rough. The cannon takes a bit of practice to fire just right, but it flings chickens a lot further than Pinkie Pie’s.
There’s an unexpected bonus to the package, too – the interior backdrop is basically a cardboard display diorama.
Seriously, how can you look at this and not smile? I can’t.
The next tier of the line is a series of two-character battle packs, which weren’t included in my samples, but you can see in the catalog. Again, this emphasizes the conflict pattern thought to be traditional male play, rather than the overall friendship theme of the show.
And then, at the $15-$20 range, we have the “Fan Series,” featuring characters fans of the show have wanted in toy for a long time: Discord, Princess Celestia, and Nightmare Moon. The impression seems to be that Hasbro thinks adult collectors want these more than kids, so they’re McFarlane-esque, detailed, pre-posed dynamic figurines with almost no articulation. Julia told me that as a kid, she’d have found them no fun at all. But if you want Discord, the chimera-like trickster voiced by John DeLancie, this is how you get him–he was previously available in a larger, deluxe light-up box as a Comic-Con exclusive, and is posed on a throne with his umbrella and cup out to catch chocolate milk raining from the sky.
His wings have small ball joints, but that’s the extent of his articulation. You can, however, usurp his throne…
In more McFarlane-like fashion, these figures are designed with the idea people will keep them in the box, and are held in place by twisty-ties and formed plastic bits. This makes their diorama backdrops considerably more useless (when opened) than the one that comes with Cheese Sandwich.
Princess Celestia’s wings can move up or down, and that’s all the posability she has.
There’s “Huh-huh-huh” potential here, too, as her tail, being translucent, billowing out like a cloud, and extending from her butt, can also kinda look like a fart escaping if you think about it…and boys will…
I’m sure these will sell, but it would be nice to have more articulated action figures of the larger characters. Maybe down the line.
Finally, the big-ticket item of the line is Spike in his giant dragon form, with a price point of $30-40. He’s the Stomp ‘n Roar Grimlock of the line, but still in scale to everyone else.
Spike, on the show, is usually a cute little sidekick, but every once in a while, when he indulges his greedier side, it turns him more monstrous and large. It’s also safe to say that a big ol’ dragon is probably being marketed because he could have crossover appeal to kids who don’t know anything about My Little Pony.
He comes with li’l Spike, and in fact there are footpegs on the saddle so that Spike can…ride himself? Sure, I guess. There are also bigger, pony-shaped footpegs so a pony (not included) can ride, but as with the party cannon, it’s a loose fit.
Big Spike’s articulation is mostly tied into his action feature. Push him forward on his legs, and he spreads his arms, opens his mouth, lights up, roars, and fires a missile from his mouth.
I assume the missiles are meant to look like green fire, but they more closely resemble him hocking a loogie. They fire clean across the room, if you were wondering–best reach of all the projectiles in the line.
If you leave his power on, once you’re done playing with him he’ll roar a little, and eventually start snoring. The armor and helmet are removable, but frankly they’re too much fun to take off.
He does have basic ball joints at the elbows, so he can nearly twiddle his fingers like Mr. Burns if you really want him to.
One final touch: each figure comes with a “wings” logo that can either clip on to their arms, or on your shirt.
While the overall attempt to shoehorn the line into as much of a military/battle theme as can be managed while still being canonical probably feels a little silly to older buyers, any way Hasbro can justify getting these out is fine by me. As a guy who never liked rooted hair dolls as a kid, but enjoys the My Little Pony cartoons now, I’d say the basic action figures in this line are as good as any fan could have hoped for. I’m a bit iffier on the fan series, but can’t deny they look like they should.
(Click on all the images to enlarge for more detail.)
Now, look these ponies in the eye and tell them you’re still sad. I can’t do it. They’re happy-makers. And a special thanks to my Brony posse: Sly, Tim, CK, and John, for providing useful MLP/FIM context.
And now that you’ve seen the Guardians of Harmony toys, how do they stack up to existing MLP merch? Better? Worse? Different strokes for different folks? Come on everypony, comment, comment, comment below!
Images: Julia and Luke Thompson for Nerdist
Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s weekend editor, and a golden pony boy. Follow him on Twitter if you dare.