Depending on how familiar you are with Internet subcultures and geekdom (and if you’re following me on a weekly basis talking about Batman and Weird Al, chances are pretty good you have at least a passing understanding of geekery) the word “Brony” may fill with you with confusion, scorn, rainbows, or joy. Since their emergence in 2010, Bronies have proven to be some of the most dedicated, zealous, and to the outsider, utterly bizarre fans in the world of Internet fandom, which is really saying something. With the excellent new documentary A Brony Tale (2014), director Brent Hodge presents a clear, affecting, and sympathetic look at some of the most fascinating inhabitants of the pop culture landscape.
But first, a quick explanation for those uninitiated: a brony (a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony”) is a man, generally between the ages of 13-30 (though neither is universally true) who is obsessed with the cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Brony culture is cultivated online where fans share artwork and fan fiction and through conventions and gatherings.
The structure of A Brony Tale separates itself from other, similar fan culture documentaries by taking simultaneously a look at its subject from both an insider and outsider’s perspective. Hodge and his film crew follow Ashleigh Ball, a Canadian voice actress who provides the voices for two of My Little Pony’s main characters (Applejack and Rainbow Dash, in case you were curious), as she nervously prepares to make a trip to the BronyCon 2012; a mass gathering of bronies in Manhattan. Despite voicing characters for the show, Ball doesn’t understand its ardent following has and is somewhat uncomfortable with the fandom and the sudden, intense celebrity it has afforded her. Interspersed through Ball’s story are interviews and profiles of a truly diverse group of fans from across the country. Hodge’s interviews present a multi-faceted fan base, consciously breaking from the stereotype of the brony as large, white, and perennially fedora-adorned (though large white men and fedoras do have their place in Hodge’s subjects). Frequently, the segments profiling fans are the best and most powerful segments of the film; the story of a veteran who is able to reconnect with society through his affinity for Friendship is Magic provides the film with its emotional weight and is given the most time in the film following Ball. Admittedly, this structure becomes a bit of a juggling act as the film jumps between following Ball and interviewing fans throughout most of the film, but all these strands come together in a satisfying way as Ball and many of the fans interviewed come together at Bronycon.
While Ashleigh Ball’s path to coming to terms with her devout fans is incredibly compelling, the bronies are truly the stars here, and it’s through their interviews that some of the most interesting questions are posited by the documentary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, masculinity and gender roles are a recurring theme throughout the documentary. As Alex highlighted last week in his excellent article about the phenomenal web series Bee and Puppycat, mainstream animation is embracing femininity in a ways that it typically hasn’t before, a fact that has drawn a larger, more diverse audience to the medium. In a lot of ways, A Brony Tale is about men responding positively to traditionally feminine concepts and ideals and attempting to reconcile and redefine their masculinity. Many of these men hold on to traditional masculine iconography and practice; among the interviewed fans are a bodybuilder who bases his physical ideal on the Super Saiyans (read: toned alien super-warriors) of Dragon Ball Z and a biker who is referred to throughout the film as “the manliest brony in the world”. Others, such as a man who recounts the responses he received while buying My Little Pony merchandise in the aisle designated for girls toys in Target, outright reject traditional notions of masculinity. The film captures how masculinity is changing in a post-9/11 world incredibly well. In addition to concerns of masculinity, A Brony Tale also dwells on the nature of fandom, how the word has taken new meaning in the Internet age, and the limits to what constitutes normal interest and what constitutes unhealthy obsession.
Though each interview is entertaining and insightful, some feel like they are reiterating the same points. While these don’t detract from the film, they take away some run-time to Ball’s story, making her feel like a secondary role in her own documentary. Similarly, it seems odd that none of Ball’s co-stars are interviewed in this film, as several are present at Bronycon. I would imagine that their takes on the culture would be interesting as well and could offer some other integral voices from outside the fandom. The film also doesn’t spend nearly as much time at the aforementioned BronyCon as I would have liked. Aside from a poignant moment at the voice actors’ panel and a montage of fans, the mass gathering doesn’t get as much attention as the beginning of the film promises.
The cinematography and sound editing showcased in A Brony Tale are excellent, well executed and stylish without being flashy or too distracting. Ultimately, the filmmaking serves to tell this story in the clearest fashion possible, which may seem like an obvious comment, but is incredibly important in a film so reliant on interviews where a poorly staged interview has the power to derail whatever the subject is trying to say.
Whether this film sways you into pro-brony territory will probably come down to a matter of personal beliefs and tastes. Hodge humanizes a maligned fanbase while still expressing the eccentricities that make this fandom so singular. After watching the film with my father, he expressed interest in watching an episode or two of Friendship is Magic, and if that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.
Look for A Brony Tale on VOD, iTunes, and in the fine movie theater of Equestria.