BARBIE & HER SISTERS IN A PONY TALE – Blu-ray review

Lately Universal seems to be on a two-year cycle with Barbie movies:  one year they release two films, the next it’s three. In 2013 the studio has already released the ballet-oriented “Barbie in the Pink Shoes” and the Fairytopia adventure “Barbie: Mariposa and the Fairy Princess.” Now comes “Barbie & Her Sisters in A Pony Tale,” in which Barbie, Skipper, Stacie, and Chelsea go to a riding academy in the Swiss Alps.

It’s Barbie meets My Little Pony, but Universal can’t exactly play up that angle because Barbie is a Mattel property and My Little Pony belongs to Hasbro. Still, the shape of the mysterious horses called “Majestiques” and their overly long and lush manes remind you of those flowing equine tresses little girls used to brush as they hummed the commercial theme song.

Of course, all of the Barbie movies are about product placement, and this latest film gives Mattel all sorts of character sets and accessories to sell. As for the film itself, my daughter (a big fan of the film series) tells me it’s middling, and that’s how it struck me as well.

She’s not a big fan of competition movies, and that’s primarily what “Barbie & Her Sisters in A Pony Tale” is all about. Barbie’s favorite riding academy is in danger of closing, unless they win the trophy for overall excellence at the next riding competition, which includes such events as eventing, show jumping, and dressage. So little girls (and that’s the primary audience for Barbie films) get a taste of horse show competition.

In the early going, though, it’s all about each girl’s individual wishes and their acclimation to their surroundings. Barbie is hoping to find a horse to bring back to Malibu, “jock” Stacie is determined to show she can excel at horse riding as well as she can other sports, little Chelsea is tired of being the small one and wants a bigger horse than the one she’s given, and Skipper is so into her tablet and blogging that she gets more excited about what she can see and do onscreen and online than with the things she’s blogging about that are right there in front of her to experience.

The latter, of course, is a welcome commentary on the excess amount of time today’s children spend on hand-held devices, but it’s pretty ingenious (or predictable?) that also there’s something here for every little girl to identify with. In addition to a range of ages and attitudes in the girls, there are the bright visuals (the alps as a backdrop are especially impressive), rival French-accented horsemasters (one of which is drawn like a little Napoleon), possible boy interests, a mystery involving a legendary horse depicted on the riding academy’s logo, and two small white dogs and a hungry goat provide comic relief.

I have to admit that I’m not a fan of the Barbie animation style, though I can see why it would appeal to young girls. It reminds me of the colorful CGI hyper-3-dimensionality we see in Disney series like “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” where all of the objects and bodies seem to float in space but don’t exactly mesh well. And the movements aren’t anywhere near as realistic as a Disney film. Sometimes they’re not intended to be, of course, as when the dogs high-five. Other times, the animation seems inconsistent, with horses looking realistic in their jumping but another time looking nothing like a horse as one of the creatures runs away from the camera.

That’s an adult perspective, though, and I’m not the target audience. My daughter likes the animation style and is appreciative of the fact that it’s evolved over time and become more sophisticated and detail-oriented.

But we both agreed that the most interesting part of the plot wasn’t the competition at the end, the lose-the-academy threat, or even Barbie’s search for the Mystiques. It was the underlying message about horsemanship that the film offers. Each girl has to learn to work with the horse and respect the horse she’s given before she can succeed . . . or rather, before THEY can succeed. That message extends as well to human interaction and cooperation.

“Barbie & Her Sisters in A Pony Tale” isn’t rated, but it would be a G, hands (and hooves) down. The runtime is 75 minutes.

Video:
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, “A Pony Tale” is, like the other Barbie films, slick-looking visually with eye-popping colors and depth. Colors burst with intensity, but some of the objects and people just don’t seem to mesh well, and HD makes that even clearer.

Audio:
The featured audio is a lively English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that does a pretty good job of channeling ambient sounds through the effects speakers and prioritizing dialogue over music and effects. Additional audio options are a DTS Digital 2.0 Surround in English, and 5.1 DTS Digital Surround in French and Spanish. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.

Extras:
This combo pack includes a Blu-ray, DVD, and UV copy, with Blu-ray bonus features that are identical to the DVD, except in HD. There are “outtakes” that are staged to sustain the illusion of the characers as “real,” as well as a “Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse” music video, and a “Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse” episode.

Bottom line:
“Barbie & Her Sisters in A Pony Tale” is a respectable outing for the doll-turned-star, but an overly familiar plot, along with animation that doesn’t have the same “wow” factor as the Fairytopia film released earlier this year, make it a middle-of-the-road entry in the series.

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