Sunday, June 23, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Thelma the Unicorn’ Adds Sparkle To Substance


Directors: Jared Hess, Lynn Wang
Writers: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, Aaron Blabey
Stars: Brittany Howard, Will Forte, Jon Heder

Synopsis: When a rare pink and glitter-filled moment of fate makes Thelma the Pony’s wish of being a unicorn come true, she rises to instant international pop-superstar stardom, but at an unexpected cost.


Netflix animation cartoons, the majority of the time, can be cute, but the animation lacks a certain flair and individuality. For every Klaus, you have a dozen or so Pets United or The Magician’s Assistant. However, Thelma the Unicorn has that “it” factor, and vibrant animation that always falls short of Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks is finally captured. It may not quite reach those lofty standards, but the artistry finally matches the inner beauty of its wonderful characters.

Based on Aaron Blabey’s children’s book series of the same name, Thelma the Unicorn follows Thelma (Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes fame), a talented and adorable miniature pony who dreams of singing professionally with her friends. Thelma’s best friend, Otis (a very funny Will Forte), is a sweet donkey who amps up a mean electric guitar. Along with their affable drummer, a llama named Reggie (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder), they are The Rusty Buckets, a country-rock band destined for stardom. The only problem is that Thelma and The Rusty Buckets lack that “it” factor that is so popular nowadays.

That becomes all too apparent to Thelma when the band is not even allowed to perform during their farm community’s big bash, “The SparklePalooza.” It happens when the three-judge panel automatically votes in a trifecta of majestic horses who are all style and have little to no substance. It’s devastating to Thelma, who we see going back to hitching a wagon to her back to move manure over the past. However, soon, that wagon, without knowing it, will be hitched to a rising star.

That’s because while lamenting the chance that slipped through their fingers with Otis, a crusty trucker (Zach Galifianakis) with terrible driving skills and etiquette, transporting paint and glitter, takes a sharp turn and douses Thelma with a nice coat of sparkling stuff. Oh, and it just so happens that Thelma had a long, crooked carrot stuck to her forehead at the moment, making her look like a unicorn with that “it” factor those judges were talking about. Soon, she becomes a social media star, and Thelma gets a shot at stardom, but will she bring her friends with her?

Thelma the Unicorn is from Jared Hess, of Napolean Dynamite and Nacho Libre fame, who co-directed the film with Lynn Wang (Teen Titans Go!). They represent a new union of sorts of animation, where a live-action director teams up with an experienced creator of animation to offer a steady hand. (In this case, Don Hall and Blindspotting’s Carlos López Estrada in Raya the Last Dragon or The Week Of’s Robert Smigel pairing himself with Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim with Leo.) This offers a simple collaboration of specializations with comedy and artistry. 

Thelma the Unicorn is very funny while offering vibrant visuals and wonderful themes for parents and their children. There is a deep bench of experienced voice actors who display pitch-perfect comic timing. The trio of Edi Patterson and Jermaine Clement, who play an assistant and agent to a malicious Norwam (Ally Dixon), take turns garnering the most belly laughs as exaggerated versions of the Hollywood elite. You then have a series of ongoing gags with a group of four pool boys constantly dancing around, reminding me of Meekus and friends lighting a cigarette at a gas station in Zoolander

The message is substance over style regarding integrity, character, and inner beauty, rather than faux style and material possessions that can lead to issues of body image, self-esteem, and self-worth. The film also offers the rewards of resilience, friendship, and inner connections, as the characters will do anything to make a buck and keep their careers afloat. That’s the core of most mainstream animated family films, and Hess and Wang manage to evoke the essence of Blabey’s book series beautifully.

That said, Thelma the Unicorn is supported by a strong and dynamic voice performance, especially by singer Brittany Howard in her rousing musical numbers. Her soulful, gritty, and emotionally resonant voice and sassy comic delivery make her a remarkably versatile performer. 

While this animated film may lack the elevated artistry of the big animated studios, Thelma the Unicorn has more than enough going for it to bring humor and substance to the genre, uniting families and friends to enjoy together.

Grade: B

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