Up until now, Equestria Girls has only told stories equivalent to the main show's two-part episodes. Even Legend of Everfree, which tried to incorporate several slice-of-life elements, eventually came back to having a magical villain threaten the camp, and the three films before that established high stakes from the beginning. As fun as some of these movies are, much of this series' appeal is in seeing familiar faces in this new, mundane, relatively familiar setting, and I've always hoped it would focus more on the individual lives of the main characters than on whatever event or villain caught their attention this week.
"Dance Magic" isn't really that, but it is the first Equestria Girls installment to not feature a magical villain, and it's also by far the most low-stakes entry in the whole series. Considering that, it's a shame that the special is such a simplistic bore, expanding on easily the least interesting part of Legend of Everfree the least interesting way possible, and completely failing to build up to My Little Pony's most basic moral in quite some time. It has more energy than Everfree, but that's not saying much, especially when its story is even emptier. While I enjoy that "Dance Magic" has lower stakes than previous entries, those stakes are so impersonal that the entire story is impossible to care about.
After inadvertently wrecking Camp Everfree, the Rainbooms begin searching for ways to raise money for repairs. Once car washing only gives them half of the necessary funds, Rarity decides to enter in a music video competition but makes the mistake of revealing their plans to Crystal Prep students (the same from Friendship Games) who will be competing against them, who promptly steal the idea. Distraught, Rarity and the Rainbooms need to find a new concept for a music video.
Considering that My Little Pony has often done a good job of giving its storylines at least a slight amount of depth, it's always disappointing when it comes up with something this simple. Unsurprisingly, "Dance Magic" is written by G.M. Berrow, whose "The One Where Pinkie Pie Knows" and "Fluttershy Leans In" were similarly impersonal and shallow, but "Dance Magic" actually has slightly more introspection than her usual fare. That's not to say it has much, as two-thirds of the episode are still built around Rarity reacting to outside forces, but she does eventually overhear the Shadowbolts complaining that they don't have a song, and she realizes that the two groups could team up and split the prize money.
While this isn't a bad moral per se, it's also an exceedingly simple one which is likely to be entirely useless to all but the youngest members of the target audience, and it's one which the majority of the episode doesn't so much as hint at. It's not like Rarity rejected this idea previously, as the special never even suggests that it was an option beforehand, and as a result it feels tacked on to a story which until then was lacking in any depth or nuance. The most Rarity ever questions herself is when she needs to come up with an idea to get more money, and otherwise she's either reacting to issues on the video shoot, the Crystal Prep students stealing her idea, or her friends' silly alternate video ideas. It's all rather dull and difficult to be invested in.
Furthermore, neither camp has particularly compelling motivations. While it's nice that the Rainbooms are fundraising for Camp Everfree, we never really see why they decided to do this, and it's not an especially personal goal for any of them, so it's difficult to care. Worse, the Crystal Prep students want the money because they promised to hold the school dance on a yacht, which they really shouldn't have if they couldn't pay for it, and which is an awfully vapid goal anyway. The special does little to expand on the personalities we saw in Friendship Games, and while these characters were always one-note, their gags have diminishing returns here.
Unfortunately, the Rainbooms suffer from the same problem. They're all in-character, and they all have something to contribute, but the special doesn't derive a whole lot of humour from their distinctive personalities, and in many cases it repeats character beats from the show proper. At one point, Rarity is self-pityingly eating ice cream, and while this does serve a narrative purpose, it also feels a bit like a rehash of the same gag from the show's "Inspiration Manifestation," and the other six are mostly background ornaments who drive the plot forward but don't do too much else. Every once in a while, the special gives one of the characters a funny line, and their music video ideas are mildly amusing, but for the most part, the special isn't particularly funny, and that makes the dull plot all the more bothersome.
At the very least, Twilight is better here than she was in Legend of Everfree. There's a dropped thread where she retracts a criticism of Rarity's plan, seemingly due to peer pressure, and the special emphasizes her analytical side enough that she arguably has more in common with her pony counterpart here than she did in the previous two movies. Unfortunately, while her timidity fits her background, it still doesn't feel a whole lot like the Twilight from the show, and while there is merit in that, I still feel it misses the point of the whole Equestria Girls series. Sunset Shimmer, on the other hand, doesn't do much in this at all, and what lines she does get do little to establish the personality she's increasingly in need of. This isn't her story, so that's fine, but what lines she does get are a little bland.
And then there's the song itself, which is profoundly generic and probably ranks up there as one of My Little Pony's least memorable to date. It's just a generic dancepop song with vapid lyrics, and the hook isn't even that catchy. It's a fairly well-executed genre pastiche, but it's not a very distinctive one, and even the accompanying visuals don't feature much other than generic dance choreography. There is a fun rap verse from Pinkie, and that portion features a welcome change of background as well as the fun sight of Rainbow Dash breakdancing, but if this entire short was building up to this musical number, you'd hope for something more creative at the very least. If nothing else, the animation is better than ever, and while the models haven't seen major improvements, the animations are even more detailed and fluid than they were in Legend of Everfree. But what's the point if there's nothing interesting to animate?
"Dance Magic" feels like an afterthought, and that's weird, because it's been more than half a year since the last Equestria Girls release. It would be more understandable if this were simply one episode of even a 13-episode season, but we're only getting three of these, and it's quite obnoxious that an entire third of this year's Equestria Girls content is this shallow and rote. It adds nothing to the series, it's not very imaginative, its plot is simple to the point of tedium, and it doesn't even have a solid moral. It's not offensive or anything, but for the life of me, I don't know why anyone would want to watch it.
Man, I miss "Friendship Games."