“Thelma the Unicorn” Director Lynn Wang on Marshaling the Magic of Brittany Howard’s Voice

When director Lynn Wang and her co-director Jared Hess set out to adapt Aaron Blabey’s popular 2015 book about a plain-Jane barn pony who dreams of being a unicorn, Wang brought to bear years of animation experience to this sure-hoofed, very funny adaptation. Thelma the Unicorn hits its high notes but also manages to work in sly humor that adults will particularly savor.

What Wang and Hess both have in spades is a deep appreciation for music (the film is chock full of tunes, and Hess made his name with the music-loving indie juggernaut Napoleon Dynamite) and the ability to get the best out of the talented people they assembled around them. Their adaptation boasts a bonafide powerhouse performer in the role of the titular pony-turned-unicorn in former Alabama Shakes’ frontwoman Brittany Howard, making her voice acting debut.

Howard’s spirited Thelma dreams of one day headlining Sparklepalooza, the biggest musical event of the year. Her band, the Rusty Buckets, features her barnyard pals Otis (Will Forte) and Reggie (Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder), a pair of donkeys. They’ve never once qualified for a major music festival. The problem, as Thelma sees it, is that being a regular barn pony means she’ll never deserve a stage and microphone; to fulfill her dreams, she needs to be somebody different. 

A scene from “Thelma the Unicorn.” Courtesy Netflix.

Everything changes, however, after a mishap turns this dreamy pony into a glittery pink unicorn (her horn is chock full of vitamin A—it’s a carrot), and a viral video of Thelma the (fake) unicorn reaches music manager Vic Diamond (Jemaine Clement), who believes she’s the next big thing. Thelma’s journey to potential stardom and her exposure as an imposter unicorn are set into motion.

All of this is handled with a bevy of showstopping tunes, wry humor, and charm. We speak to Wang about how she helped Thelma the Unicorn find its sparkle and shine.

Walk me through what it was like to direct an animated film during Covid.

Usually, we’re doing all of this face-to-face, and it’s really fast and free-flowing; you get a lot of creative minds in a room together and throw ideas back and forth, scribbling ideas. We didn’t get to have that luxury during Covid; we were doing it through Zoom, like this. But that format forced us to trust each other a lot more and make sure we could communicate our ideas clearly and create the space for our other team members to do that. There was a lot of trust that we had to create really, really fast.

Lynn Wang. Photo by Mekael Dawson.

What was the adaptation process from the books—did the books create parameters for how the film could look, or did you have the license to go in a different direction?

It was definitely an open conversation. Typically, when adapting a book for animation, you expect it to evolve. Things have to get more intricate to translate a 32-page picture book into a 90-minute movie, especially in CG. We always wanted to take the essence of what Aaron Blabey did in his illustrations, which were wacky, weird, and funny on sight, because we thought that fit the movie’s theme so well.  Celebrating everyone’s quirks and ensuring you were celebrating yourself and what makes you special. So the core of those ideas were there, and there were some other things we wanted to keep: Thelma being short and the textures we loved in Aaron Blabey’s illustrations. Mikros, our animation company, was amazing. They had people who specialized in the physics of hair and cloth simulation and stuff like that, all that added together make this giant whole, and it takes a really long time. [Laughs].

Brittany Howard is Thelma and Jemaine Clement is Vic Diamond in “Thelma the Unicorn.” Courtesy Netflix.

What’s it like to direct and shape voice performances in real-time, especially with someone like Brittany Howard, who has such an iconic voice…

Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s funny because once we found Thelma’s character and finally signed on Brittany—and we were so excited about that—we were thinking about how we could marry her personality to Thelma. The moment we got Brittany into the recording booth, she was so comfortable in front of the microphone, so it was amazing to watch her slip into that so easily. To watch her embody Thelma, she was able to bring so much of her own personality, and as she was recording, we were shifting Thelma because of some of the things she would do or say. A lot of the times, we’d have her read the lines, and as she was saying it, Jared and I would be like, that doesn’t sound quite right, so we’d ask her how she’d say it in her own way, and more often than not, that’s what would end up in the movie. We thought the actors taking hold of the characters and helping direct where the characters would land was right. Especially with comedy.


You have some seriously gifted comedians in this cast…

Especially Will Forte, who voiced Otis, he’s so sweet and funny and dorky at the same time, Will really took a hold of that. And the same with Jemaine Clement, who plays Vic Diamond, he was just hilarious. He was riffing a ton of stuff that we ended up not being able to use in the movie, but they were all great and added so much to the character. He was also amazing to watch work through the music.

A scene from “Thelma the Unicorn.” Courtesy Netflix.

How much re-recording did you have to do?

We brought them back quite a bit. It wasn’t weekly, more like once in a few months, because we were working toward screenings. Once we got into animation dailies, we were pretty much locked at that point, because changing animation is a lot more expensive and a lot harder to do. So when we were doing screenings and doing storyboards, we have these moments during the process of making animation where we show the entire movie in whatever shape it’s in—it’s really rough, and it’s all temp scratch, temp audio, and we’re just watching to see how the movie is playing. From there, there’s usually a lot of re-writing and dialogue changing, so after each screening, we bring back the actors to re-record the new audio or get a new take on something.

Did you have any other animated or live-action touchstones while you were working on this? One movie that comes to mind is Sing.

It’s funny that you bring up Sing, we did bring up that film a couple of times just in terms of how we wanted to present this musical movie. Sing is a performance musical versus a Disney musical where you’re singing through the story process and everyone’s emotions. Our film is a performance movie, so that’s where that reference came in. For the most part, we didn’t really use other animated movies as references, the references we used were a lot more from live-action, a lot of musical bios like A Star is Born or Yesterday or Sing Street. We tried to capture the fun of a performance musical. It sounds cheesy, but the project you’re working on does tell you what it needs. You have to follow that down the path without being diverted by something else.

It’s interesting because A Star is Born is a fairly dark reference…

Yes. [Laughs.] That’s true; it’s a very dark reference for a very sparkly unicorn.

You had an embarrassment of riches in terms of musical talent to work with here…

Yeah, we did have an embarrassment of riches, so many songwriters who made demos for us. On top of that, we had Brittany and a great music team at Netflix, who helped us keep our focus on the emotional character arc. And our great songwriters who kept Thelma’s emotional journey in mind, people like Brett McKenzie, who has been writing for TV and movies as well as Flight of the Conchords, and Taura Stinson, who really resonated with Thelma’s journey and who could bring her own truth and history into the songs. That’s why I think a lot of Thelma’s songs are so emotional. And we had Theo Katzman and Louis Cato, and they were phenomenal in helping us make things so ear-wormy.

How did you feel when it was time to put your pencils down, no more tinkering allowed, and you saw the finished film?

I’m really happy with where we landed and that we achieved what we set out to achieve: subverting the unicorn movie. The humor and joy of this movie really come through in the end. And working with my entire team is really excited about where the movie landed. As with any project you work on for so long, you’ll always think, “What if we had more time to explore this a little more,” but I don’t think that’s ever going to stop. [Laughs]. We really strived for whole family viewing; there’s humor for kids, for adults, there’s references for music lovers, needle drops and songs that people will recognize from growing up, and then introducing that type of music to little kids. I hope this is a movie for everybody.

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Featured image: Brittany Howard is Thelma in “Thelma the Unicorn.” Courtesy Netflix.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.