I remember a kid in my old neighborhood who owned a Ken doll. Ken, you may remember, was the sexually ambiguous boyfriend of the infinitely more famous Barbie. If that wasn’t weird enough, this kid kept his Ken doll in a state of near nudity, stripping off his safari gear until poor Ken was down to a pair of bright red swimming trunks. The kid would walk around the neighborhood with his near naked Ken doll tucked under his arm, and occasionally visit my yard, where I and my Neanderthal pals were having fun with our far more manly “action figures,” which included the likes of GI Joe, and Stretch Armstrong. Ken wasn’t a natural fit – he was too small, his hair too perfect, and he was always smiling. The kid claimed that if you left Ken in the sun for a while, he’d actually get a tan. We eventually let the boy join us because we didn’t figure Ken would last long, not with the way we brutalized our toys. Yet, as we dragged our guys through the mud and hurled them from rooftops, Ken showed surprising durability. Barbie hadn’t totally emasculated him, after all. Then, a fat kid named Bobby Harris showed up with an Evel Knievel doll, perhaps the toughest damned toy in the history of mankind, and all bets were off. Ken joined GI Joe and the others in immediate obsolescence.
I thought of that kid and his Ken doll while watching A Brony Tale, a cute, good-hearted documentary about the surprising male fandom surrounding ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.’ The Pony program is made for young girls, but apparently attracts everyone from military men to bikers. “Don’t underestimate the things that make you happy,” says one of the movie’s more emotionally fragile fellows. He’d returned from military duty a depressed wreck but was rejuvenated by his love of the animated show. His comment is perhaps the most useful of the 97 minute feature, and he’s certainly more to the point than the various grown men who drone about their right to enter a toy store and buy something in the Pony aisle.
One practicing psychologist suggests the phenomenon of “Bronies,” as the male fans are called, is a reaction to the post 9/11 decade, and proposes these burly misfits are just trying to get away from the violence and uncertainties of the past 10 years. Ok, maybe. No one understands better than me that pop culture can help shield a person from what ails him. Yet, the spectacle of 200 Bronies gathering for a group hug strikes me as less about the alleged magical elements of the show and more about lonely people trying something, anything, to find a connection.
The movie loses steam in its middle, as director Brent Hodge focuses on younger Bronies. Neither the junior high school fans nor the older, college age fans add much to the story. When you’ve heard one melancholy loner tell about the redemptive qualities of My Little Pony, you’ve heard them all.
The meat of the film involves Ashleigh Ball, the young Canadian woman who provides the voices of Applejack and Rainbow Dash, two of My Little Pony’s most beloved characters. Ball is slightly bewildered by the show’s swelling fandom, and after attending a Brony convention in Manhattan, she’s still slightly bewildered. She’s involved in something with a power she hadn’t imagined – Ball was a voice over artist who played in a band and took the Pony gig because it offered a paycheck. Now, to her surprise (and discomfort?), Ball may end up as the William Shatner of Brony world.
It’s disappointing that Hodge misses out on the most obvious question: What do little girls think of these much older men who watch the show? How do they feel when they go into a toy store only to learn that the last available book of Rainbow Dash decals has been scooped up by some 38-year-old loser? I found it unfortunate that the Manhattan convention was devoid of the show’s real target audience, and that Ball didn’t get to mingle with some of the very young girls who would’ve loved meeting her. Instead, she’s on a podium fielding questions from a bunch of depressed types who should really be trying to bust out of their arrested puberty.
It’s also odd that no mention is made of the show’s creators, illustrators, or producers, as if the program simply exists in a vacuum. It’s impossible to imagine a documentary about Star Wars fans that didn’t mention George Lucas, but not a single Brony interviewed gives credit to any creative types. Apparently, all that goes on in a Brony’s mind is his own love for the show, his own needs, and his own impossibly sad depths that can only be eased by a girly cartoon.
To Hodge’s credit, he doesn't dwell on what could be construed as the more prurient aspects of the story. He lets us think what we will of grown men who are strangely attached to images of sweet little horses made to sound like young girls. Is watching the show merely a safe way to stare at little girls, to enter their innocent fantasies? I can’t say for certain. The old ‘Davey and Goliath’ series offered positive messages, too, but I don’t recall a lot of middle-aged guys being into it.
I’d never heard of ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.’ From the clips in the documentary, it appears to be a friendly program about girl ponies learning life lessons. It’s a safe place to be, this world of pretty ponies, probably much nicer than a muddy backyard in the suburbs, where an afternoon with your buddies might be interrupted by a half-naked Ken doll.
What can one say about a movie that is nothing more than 90 minutes of a guy trying to start an old VW bus? That’s what Ryan Steven Green’s Circle the Wagens seems to be, as we follow a couple of good-hearted fellows in their attempt to bring a “baby blue ‘72” across the country to California. The vehicle, a rusted Volkswagen Transporter Deluxe won on eBay, is affectionately known as “The Croc.” It breaks down. It starts up. It breaks down. It starts up. Somebody paints it. It breaks down. And that’s the story.
The movie is supposed to amuse us with the camaraderie of men linked by their love of VWs, but there’s really not enough here to hang a story. It grows monotonous to hear someone groping for words to explain why these vehicles inspire such devotion. No one really has a good reason, although a few people correctly point out that all cars “look the same nowadays.” True, the old VWs stand out and have some character, but what’s the point if yours won’t start?
Our happy go lucky protagonist, Dave Torstenson, doesn’t help matters, labeling himself early on as someone who knows nothing about cars. Great, just the guy we want to spend 90 minutes with as he fumbles with his heap. We’re told constantly about his adventurous spirit, and how he went to Iraq in 2006 to teach elementary school, but while I’m sure he’s a nice guy, none of this makes one care if he gets his piece of junk bus across the country. Green even stops the movie halfway through so Torstenson can enter a steak eating contest at some hillbilly dive, as if watching someone chew a steak is any more interesting than watching someone try to start up an old rust bucket.
According to the movie’s website, Green “made his first documentary at the tender age of 19. Its subject was the ‘blue flame,’ that is, lighting farts on fire. The topics of subsequent films are equally symptomatic of an unfashionably happy childhood: snails, mustaches, modern homesteaders, coffee, and now Volkswagens.” Well, I haven’t seen his movies about farts or mustaches, but if Circle The Wagens is any indication, I’ll avoid them. Circle the Wagens is almost saved by cinematographer Lawson Demming, who shoots the roadside motels and the big sky scenery with élan. It’s not enough, though.
The movie has been well received on the festival circuit, and given a surprisingly high rating on the IMDB, I imagine due to its DIY vibe. (Green edited the thing on a computer inside the Croc, which earns him some points from “do it yourselfers.”) Some viewers may be satisfied with the colorful photography, the nostalgia for cheap roadside kitsch, and the earthiness of the characters. Some may find a metaphor here for an old America that is dying. Some may even be tickled to know about this Volkswagen subculture. To me, watching this was like listening to someone who doesn’t speak a language try to bluff his way through a conversation. The rhythms may be there, and the right facial expressions, but there’s nothing being said.
If you can’t wait for this one to hit the cable channels devoted to cars and such, it will be available VOD on 7/29, and DVD 8/26. For more about the film, visit CircleTheWagen.com.
The above reviews originally appeared on http://www.cinemaretro.com/index.php?/archives/P2.html