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Brittany Howard in Netflix Animated Film

Brittany Howard in Netflix Animated Film

Here’s how to take a children’s book geared to younger children and adapt it into an animated feature that adults can enjoy just as much: Simply hire Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess, the husband-and-wife screenwriting team responsible for such films as Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, and have them apply their unique brand of off-kilter humor to the material. Add to that a top-notch voice cast led by Brittany Howard, the former lead singer of Alabama Shakes turned solo artist, and you have Thelma the Unicorn, another winner for Netflix’s animation department.

Adapted from the best-selling book by Aaron Blabey (whose book The Bad Guys became an animated big-screen hit), the film co-directed by Jared Hess and Lynn Wang (Unikitty!) revolves around the titular character, voiced by Howard. Except that Thelma is not really a unicorn. She’s a simple horse who loves music and performs in a band named The Rusty Buckets along with her donkey friends, guitarist Otis (Will Forte) and drummer Reggie (Jon Heder). Thelma spends her days mostly toting manure on a farm and playing music in her free time. But the band hasn’t been able to get very far, being denied the opportunity to audition in the “Sparklepalooza Talent Search” because they just don’t have “it.”

Thelma the Unicorn

The Bottom Line

An offbeat winner.

Release date: Friday, May 15
Cast: Brittany Howard, Will Forte, Jermaine Clement, Edi Patterson, Maliaka Mitchell, Ally Dixon, Fred Armisen, Zach Galifianakis, Jon Heder
Directors: Jared Hess, Lynn Wang
Screenwriters: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess

Rated PG,
1 hour 33 minutes

That all changes when Thelma, playing around with a carrot, gets hit by a cloud of paint and glitter spilled by a passing truck. With the carrot stuck to her snout, she now looks like a unicorn, and resolves to change her life by adopting a new, magical identity. Rejecting the opportunity to make more music with her friends and blind music producer/guitarist Peggy Purvis (Maliaka Mitchell), she instead gets caught up in the pop music world, exemplified by superstar whale artist Nikki (Ally Dixon) and her scantily clad back-up dancers The Pool Boys.

Thelma becomes Nikki’s opening act in Vegas and steals the spotlight, attracting the attention of Nikki’s sleazy, ascot-wearing British manager Vic Diamond (Jermaine Clement, predictably hilarious) and the resentment of her loyal assistant (Edi Patterson), who tries to sabotage Thelma’s burgeoning career. Along the way, Thelma, newly signed to “Huge Sellout Records,” gets assigned a fake celebrity boyfriend in the form of Danny Stallion (Fred Armisen), a horse whose hair completely covers his eyes and whose biggest hit is “Here Comes the Cud.”  

The film’s satirical portrait of the excesses of the pop music world is consistently fresh and funny, and definitely on point, with Thelma’s original songs rejected by her record label in favor of ones created by algorithms. Adding to the authenticity is Howard, whose soulful vocalizing is spotlighted in several terrific original songs including “Fire Inside” and “Just as You Are.” She also proves a natural as a voice actor, investing her characterization with winning vulnerability and charm. Thelma is not the only character afforded a musical showcase, with Clement leading the raucously fun musical number “Three C’s to Success.”

The off-kilter character animation proves consistently appealing. And Clement’s Diamond is a hoot with his ‘60s-era London mod clothes and absurd facial hair. One of the film’s funniest visual gags involves a truck driver, Crusty Trucker (funnily voiced by Zach Galifianakis), who demonstrates his bona fides as a champion clog dancer by showing Thelma his grotesquely muscled calf.

As with so many animated films, Thelma the Unicorn becomes overly busy in its final act, sacrificing some of its sly wit to cluttered visual freneticism apparently designed to rouse small fry who might be succumbing to a sugar crash. But for most of its running time, it’s a small-scale delight that balances quirky humor and heartfelt emotion to excellent effect.   

Full credits

See Also

Production: BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, Buzzfeed Studios, Matchbox Hero, Mikros Animation, Netflix Animation, Netflix Studios, Scholastic Entertainment
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Brittany Howard, Will Forte, Jermaine Clement, Edi Patterson, Maliaka Mitchell, Ally Dixon, Fred Armisen, Zach Galifianakis, Jon Heder
Directors: Jared Hess, Lynn Wang
Screenwriters: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess
Producer: Pam Coats
Executive producers: Aaron Blabey, Patrick Hughes
Editor: Edie Ichioka
Production designer: Trevor Dalmer
Composer: John Powell

Rated PG,
1 hour 33 minutes

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