Monday, 24 December 2012

Review: Season One DVD box set

The opening menu screen
They should have called that option "Marathon", really...
It's taken its time coming, but at last you can own Season One of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in physical form with the release of the DVD box set, which is available only in Region 1 form and only here on Amazon.com. There's no Blu-ray option (yet?) which may put off some prospective purchasers, but I took the plunge and ordered a copy from across the Pond. Keep reading after the jump to see my detailed (and I do mean detailed!) thoughts on whether it was worth it.


Season One episodes
It's interesting to go back to S1 now, after spending some time in the faster, more expansive world of the later seasons. When this was being made, there was no thought that the show would spawn one of the most active fandoms ever seen for... well, anything, really. Lauren Faust designed MLP:FiM to appeal to parents as well as their children, but I doubt she consciously aimed it at young adults! There's a gentler, calmer feel to large chunks of this season, something that is actually rather refreshing.

The opener, the two-part "Friendship is Magic", does have the pilot light burning a bit, but it's still enjoyable and Nightmare Moon is a fine opening villain. The season takes a bit of time really to get into gear, and it's about halfway before we have all the main elements of the show we know today: ponies sparking off each other's flaws, the Cutie Mark Crusaders, fantastic songs and so on. "A Bird in the Hoof" (episode 22) remains one of the best episodes at showing Fluttershy as a rounded character, something not always done in later seasons.

As far as I can tell, the episodes haven't been retouched in any way since they were first shown: even the notorious animation glitch in "The Best Night Ever" remains... and it's noted in the episode commentary! Obviously you don't get The Hub's logo and adverts for Transformers everywhere, though actually in the early part of S1 these were rather lighter and less annoying than they later became. It's going to be interesting to see what happens to "The Last Roundup" when the S2 box set appears...

Pinkie Pie loses it in "Party of One"
Doesn't matter how often you see this, it never gets any less terrifying
Presentation
I'm watching these discs on my PC with the help of the indispensable VLC media player, so I don't have to sit through any unskippable stuff. The actual menus are pretty simple, and look as though they could have been put together in about ten minutes, but they are clear. Thankfully, the little animation that leads up to the episode list each time is very short, only a few seconds long. As far as I can tell, there are no Easter eggs that appear if you leave things running for a few minutes. In other words: menus to be used, not to be admired.

As to video quality, there's no getting away from it: those of us who've been watching episodes in 1080p are going to be underwhelmed by the visuals here. By DVD standards they're decent, if a little washed out, but when put up against their HD equivalent the episodes look a bit on the fuzzy side. Not that I'm any sort of expert on the technical side of things, but compression doesn't seem to have caused too much damage: there are a few times when plain black areas look slightly muddy, but not much more than that.

Since I only ever listen to these things on headphones, I can't really comment on whether the set uses 2.0 audio as stated on the box or 5.1 surround sound as one or two reviewers have claimed. Still, I didn't have any problems with it. Everypony's voice is clear, the stereo is nice and wide, the songs sound right and there's rarely any difficulty in working out who's who. (The commentaries are a slight exception to this, as I'll mention in a minute.)

Episode list from Disc 1
Clearly she wasn't Great and Powerful enough to get her own commentary!
Episode commentaries
There are six of these — both pilot episodes, "Winter Wrap Up", "Suited for Success", "The Show Stoppers" and the finale. The episode selection is reasonable, even if I would have given a great deal to have heard Andrea Libman talking us through "Party of One"! A variety of show staff appear, ranging from Daniel Ingram to Cathy Weseluck, though they rotate a little between episodes. Sadly, two people most of us would have wanted to hear from, Lauren Faust and Tara Strong, do not appear. Better luck next time?

The commentaries themselves are a worthy addition to the set. It's amusing to discover that, for example, Andrea Libman doesn't say much (like Fluttershy) but that when she does she often sounds more like Pinkie! It sounds as though the commentaries were recorded in chronological order, since the group dynamics come across as slightly uncertain in the opening episodes. You can't always be entirely sure who's speaking when, either. There's a funner, more relaxed vibe to the final couple, which leaves you wishing there could have been more.

It's occasionally hard to work out who the commentaries are aimed at: this is a DVD of a kids' show... but most six-year-olds won't be watching them in the first place. While there is a small amount of fandom nodding going on (perhaps most notably the use of the word "brohoof" in one commentary) it's mostly kept to a minimum. We do get to learn some interesting things: Twilight's "All-team Organiser" vest in "Winter Wrap Up" was put on her using (Rarity's) magic because animating her getting dressed normally would have been too hard!

There are a few frustrations in the commentaries, one being the lack of comments on the cold opens while the staff are name-checking the storyboarders. (Something that would have been better done during the opening credits.) Also, more amusing than frustrating, but at one point in the first commentary there's a slight impression that an incipient discussion about background ponies' fan-given names is being "moved swiftly on" for fear that the name of a certain grey pegasus (visible at the time) might enter into the conversation!

Fluttershy's section of the extended theme sing-a-long
The extended theme is actually brilliant
Other extras
There aren't that many of these. There are two singalongs: the extended version of the theme tune is (to coin a phrase) tons of of fun and nicely written, with the words simply printed on the screen as you've doubtless seen already on YouTube many months ago. The "At the Gala" singalong suffers badly by comparison: the song (which is just the show version) is of course great, but for some reason the words are placed on a huge dark red background which blots out the bottom fifth or so of the screen. It looks horrible.

Next up are six "Pony Profiles" videos, which each last about 40 seconds. These cover all the Mane Six... except Rainbow Dash, which is a strange omission. But not as bizarre as the replacement video, for Celestia: not only are we told that she raises the Sun and the Moon, but also that she's the only pony with both wings and horn. Considering Luna is in the very first story of S1, that seems odd to say the least!

Finally, there are five colouring sheets in PDF form which can be accessed using a computer's CD-ROM drive. These show all the Mane Sixers except Fluttershy. Boo, hiss! These use designs anyone who's ever bought an MLP colouring book will have seen before.

Cadance on Disc 3 of the Season One DVD
But where's Shining Armor?
Packaging
The four-disc set comes in a standard-size case, which means it will slip nicely alongside the rest of your DVD collection. There's a cardboard slipcase over the top, but as its design is identical to the actual DVD case cover (apart from the hole cut out for the barcode to show through!) I can't really see the point. The cover design itself is... generic. The Mane Six, Spike and (for some reason) Angel, all portrayed against a Ponyville background using vectors we've seen a thousand times before.

The back cover is also populated by uninspired vectors; I suspect those are just what Hasbro gave Shout! Factory to work with, so they didn't have much choice. I hope that the surely in-the-works Season Two set will do a bit better on that score. The blurb is notable for two things: one, using the phrase "20% Cooler" and two, mis-spelling AJ's name as "Apple Jack". Otherwise it's a workmanlike but decent summary of what lies within; who'd disagree with "cheerfully adorable"?

Inside the box, there isn't a lot to see. A different, slightly busier Ponyville street scene forms the backdrop to a very straightforward episode list. The four discs are stored quite well, in that they click in and out of their holders without undue effort. Each disc is fully colour printed, which is nice to see... though for no adequately explored reason, Disc 3 shows Cadance, who doesn't appear in S1! Luna doesn't appear after the pilot, but why not show the CMC on Disc 3 — which includes two CMC episodes — instead? 

The Mane Six hug at the end of "The Cutie Mark Chronicles"
Group hugs are magic
Verdict
There are really only two reasons to buy this box set: wanting an official collection of S1 episodes... and the commentaries, which may make the difference between a yay and a neigh for many fans. RRP is US$34.99, but as I write Amazon is selling the set for US$26.24, which is about £16. It'll be a bit more than that once you've paid for shipping it to the UK, but it's still probably worth it for the commentaries. Not an utterly unmissable item, but nice to have.
7/10

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