Tuesday, June 18, 2024

‘Thelma the Unicorn’ is too Autotuned

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I don’t know quite how to feel about Thelma the Unicorn. It is not a bad movie, and the animation eschews realism, its characters exuding an Illumination style that gives it a polished sheen. Yet, for all its flashes of personality and talent, the movie never seems to gel into anything worth its runtime.

Directed by Jared Hess and Lynn Wang the well-intentioned latest from Netflix is short on charm. Hess who directed the cult classics Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre also co-wrote them with his brother Jershusa Hess, the duo teaming up for the script of Thelma the Unicorn. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Aaron Blabey. Blabey also wrote the series of graphic novels behind the 2022 Dreamworks The Bad Guys.

thelma the unicorn
Thelma sans unicorn makeup (Brittany Howard) steps up to the microphone.

All of this is by way of saying Thelma the Unicorn isn’t unwatchable but it is forgettable. Hess imbues Thelma the Unicron with an irreverence that if it were less restrained would spin the movie into something special. At times the Hess brothers and Wang channel Ren & Stimpy in their offbeat crude humor, stopping shy of the innuendos of the iconic show.

The world itself is pleasantly askew with animals and humans working and living side by side. Thelma (Brittany Howard) a pony, and her best pal Otis (Will Forte) a donkey, haul manure at the local farm while dreaming of forming a rock band, “The Rusty Buckets” and headlining at SparklePalooza. Like all good kid movies, it never bothers to explain how or why this is because why would any child care? It would be like trying to map out the logic of an imaginary friend. 

Thelma’s the lead singer, Otis is the bassist, and their best friend Reggie (John Heder) a Llama on drums, the trio has heart and soul, but can’t seem to catch a break. Between being picked on by the show horses and bombing their SparklePalooza audition, Thelma is feeling low in the dumps. That is until a freak accident douses Thelma in glitter and pink paint, gluing an old carrot to her forehead, making her appear to all the world as a unicorn.

I got a kick out of how quickly the other characters went from thinking unicorns weren’t real to accepting Thelma was one without question. After all the number one popstar in this world is Nikki Narwhal (Ally Dixon), granted the difference between a Narwhal and Thelma the unicorn is that Narwhals exist. Though credit where credit is due there’s a clever gag involving Nikki’s authenticity towards the end.

thelma the unicorn
Otis (Will Forte) and Thelma (Howard) as a unicorn follow the music.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Thelma pretends to be something she’s not to get everything she’s ever wanted only to realize it means nothing without her friends. The Hess brothers’ script delights in being crude in a way that most modern kids’ films try to avoid. Characters have bad teeth, flies cheer when more dung arrives, “Breakfast,” and both skinny and heavyset are lauded as beautiful. Thelma the Unicorn eschews normalized beauty standards in favor of normalizing the weirdly shaped along with disabled characters whose disabilities have nothing to do with the story.

Hess and Wang build such a devoutly kooky world its a shame so much of the film feels lifted off a conveyor belt. Even as the Hess brothers try to comment on the soul-lessness of overly produced pop albums it can’t escape the fact that the film is filled with autotuned covers of famous rock songs with a smattering of original songs so forgettable they are almost not worth mentioning. The one exception is the song sung by Vic Diamond, the crass, gauche record producer Vic Diamond (Jermaine Clement), a song whose bop and lyrics hint at a smarter more audacious film underneath Thelma the Unicorn.

At times Hess and Wang give in to the Tex Aery lunacy of old-school animation. A favorite instance of mine is when the duo switches world perspectives as we go inside “Dungeons and Wagons”, a table-top game devised by Otis. It’s a mixture of Dungeons and Dragons and Oregon Trail. It’s a gag so potent that I wish Thelma the Unicorn was about Thelma, Otis, and Regiie playing Dungeons and Wagons rather than the same old story both I and the target kids in the audience have seen a hundred times over.

The rest of the film however never finds a voice, despite the story being about a horse finding hers. Part of the problem is that much of the humor derives from pop culture references that kids won’t get. Yes, I know Clement’s Vic Diamonds voice is a riff on Rober Leach, but what modern kid watches “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”? The film is aimed at kids but made by adults trying to entertain themselves, which works sometimes, but also feels as if Balbey’s story is getting lost in the struggle.

thelma the unicorn
Vic Diamond (Jermaine Clement) tries to tempt Thelma (Howard) with dreams of stardom and glamour.

Still, it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t feel compelled to cite every movie or pop-culture reference it makes to the point that it feels like an animated Wikipedia article. For instance, a character being a blatant Sam Elliot knock-off without anyone ever mentioning his name. I’d rather a movie make a tired joke than waste time giving me the citations of the inspirations behind it.

Thelma the Unicorn is so straightforward that parents, and maybe even some kids, will start to notice that most of the drama has already been solved so why is the film still going? The cuteness wears off pretty quickly and despite flourishes of something more, Thelma the Unicorn can’t help but feel as crass as the art it’s trying to lampoon.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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