Netflix's Thelma The Unicorn co-directors reveal the secret of a successful collaboration

Jared Hess and Lynn Wang helm the adapted screenplay which takes a once-ordinary pony to the international stage in this impressive feature film.
Thelma the Unicorn. Cr: Netflix.
Thelma the Unicorn. Cr: Netflix. /

It's time to make some noise for Thelma the Unicorn! The music-making pony is taking her talents to the big screen in this Netflix feature adaptation of the picture book series of the same name written by author Aaron Blabey (The Bad Guys).

Thelma the Unicorn follows the story of Thelma, a young pony who dreams of making it big as a pop star! Thelma is then transformed into a unicorn and quickly accomplishes her dream of notoriety and fame, but realizes that with great power comes even greater responsibilities. Will Thelma be able to handle the rocky road of pop stardom or will she have to come back down to earth?

Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Brittany Howard makes her voice acting debut in the titular role as Thelma alongside SNL alums Will Forte and Fred Armisen as Otis, Thelma's donkey best friend and Danny, Thelma's boyfriend, respectively. Other voice talents include Jemaine Clement, Edi Patterson, Jon Heder, Shondrella Avery, and Zach Galifianakis. The film is co-produced by Netflix Animation and Scholastic Entertainment.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with co-directors Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and Lynn Wang (UniKitty!) The directing duo also gave great advice for working as a team and collaborating with each other on this film.

The Parent Watch: Jared, not only are you a co-director of Thelma the Unicorn, you also co-wrote the adapted screenplay with your wife. I'd like to know what the writing process was like as you brought Thelma's story from the books to the big screen.

Jared Hess: Aaron Blabey's book that it's based on is pretty incredible. We really wanted to protect, the themes from the book and make sure that they really translate it into the film. Thelma goes on this journey of self-acceptance and learns that she doesn't have to change who she is in order to be loved and fulfill her dreams. That was really important to us. It's a smaller picture book so we really had to expand the world and we decided to make Thelma a character that is a musician and wants to become a music star and have her work heard throughout the world. That really opened up the music component for the film.

Lynn, you're no stranger to animation. You have credits ranging from storyboard artist to showrunner. I'd like to know what made the film Thelma the Unicorn such a special project to work on.

Lynn Wang:  I've been a big fan of Jared and Jerusha’s for a long time. Their work is so funny and so appealing. I was really attracted to working with them because I think I could allow myself to be weird and funny. I could push those limits. That was really interesting to me. On top of, after reading the script that they wrote, Thelma's story really resonated with me; Being able to relate to that theme that she goes through when I was a child and then also even as an adult today, I think that's really universal and very important to continue to showcase. I was really excited about that. Working on Thelma, we wanted to make sure that it hopefully stands out from a lot of other movies. A lot of that is from the look of the movie; Making sure we took elements from Aaron Blabey's book - the textures and the quirkiness and the really oddball characters - and just making sure that was translated onto film with the textures and everything..They just felt like you could really touch it on top of that, making it a musical. It's a band that sings on stage. We wanted to bring in elements of music that is more rare in kids musicals nowadays. We wanted to make sure that the songs were recognizable for parents who would be watching and grandparents who would be watching. All of those elements really attracted me to Thelma.

Jared and Lynn, separately, you've achieved success in live action film and animated television, as we previously spoke about. What have you learned from this co-directing opportunity for Thelma the Unicorn?

Hess: Always work with people that are smarter and funnier than you. I managed to do that my whole career.

Wang: [laughs] I think that's great; Working with passionate people. Animation and live action [industries are] full of really passionate people that want to make the movie as good as it can. You want to find those people to work with you.

We also need to acknowledge this incredible voice cast with Brittany Howard voicing Thelma, Will Forte, Fred Armisen... The list goes on and on. What was it like working with them?

Hess: It was super fun. We started the production during the pandemic, like in 2020. I was just going through my contacts list of people [who] were bored and not doing anything at home and could voice characters for us in their closets. A lot of the cast I'd worked with before on other films or television [shows] and then some were new. I hadn't worked with Fred Armisen before so it was amazing to be able to work with him. Britney, I mean, come on. We were such huge fans of all of her music so when she said yes to coming on board and voicing Thelma, we just felt like we hit the jackpot. We just tried not to screw it up and let her be herself and be funny and just sing her brains out like she does on all of her albums, and she's just incredible.

I'd love to know what the message that viewers should be getting out of the film.

Wang: We really tried to hone in on - and I hope we were really successful by the end of the movie - It's really just to make sure that you don't have to change yourself to be loved and realize that power comes from inside you and to look around and look for the people who have been supporting you from that beginning and who love you for who you are.

Thelma The Unicorn is on Netflix now.

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