The Last Unicorn (2005 Review)

March 8, 2005

There's a great moment that takes place halfway through The Last Unicorn, when Molly Grue, a sharp-tongued woman of middle age, discovers The Unicorn hiding in the forest. At first, she is stunned into silence; face-to-face with the mythical creature that all girls dream about. But then something remarkable happens. Her awe is turned into anger, and she starts shouting.

"Damn you! Where have you been?! Where were you twenty years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you? How dare you come to me now, when I am this!"

This is a remarkable moment, and a little unsettling, too. We aren't accustomed to having real life intrude upon fairy tales. Yet it is such honest lyricism that gives the story its strength.

Faithful readers of Peter S. Beagle have been enthralled by The Last Unicorn since its publication in 1968, and they need no more proddings. They'll be more than happy to share their own experiences reading the novel. It's a story that has a very devoted following, and after watching the 1982 animated film, I think I can understand why.

The plot itself is fairly standard: an unnamed Unicorn leaves the comfort of her enchanted forest to venture the outside world in search of others like her. Along the way, she encounters friends who wish to help her, including a decidedly Semitic-looking apprentice wizard named Schmendrick, the aforementioned Molly Grue, and a noble prince named Lir (ahem).

I have never really been a fan of fantasy novels, and yet here I am, thouroughly engrossed with this picture. Beagle takes a conventional form and punches it with a poetic flair. I can't think of any truly inspired writing from any Disney fairy tale, but The Last Unicorn is blessed with dialog that floats and dances. It's truly inspired.

The key is that Beagle wrote the screenplay for the film version, and kept as close to the original novel as possible. Clearly, his emphasis is on the text above all else; most American animation treats the writing as an afterthought. To Rankin-Bass, this is a labor of love.

That love extends to the voice actors as well. There's the great antecdote regarding Christopher Lee, who arrived at the recording sessions, book in hand, with key passages highlighted. The man simply would not allow the directors to cut out his favorite parts. You can hear that dedication in his role of Haggard, an embittered old king who has imprisoned the world's unicorns under the sea. Lazy as I am, I want to make the obvious comparison to his role in Lord of the Rings, but I think Lee is better here. He's more emotionally involved.

Alan Arkin, Tammy Grimes, Angela Lansbury, Rene Aberjonois - all deliver more genuine conviction and emotion than almost any animated picture made in America. Having such wonderful dialog brings the best out of them. Arkin's Schmendrick and Grimes' Molly get all the best wisecracks; their banter alone is worth the price of admission.

Mia Farrow is very good in the title role, and she's perfect at projecting wonder, curiosity, and anguish. The less said of her singing in the film's second half, however, the better. We'll just use her song number as a chance to run for the fridge.

Also, the less said of the songs from America, an old soft-pop group, the better. I know many of you love the songs, and I don't want to take that away from you. I'll just politely disagree and wonder we just couldn't have more dialog. What is it with American animation and song numbers, anyway?

The Last Unicorn is a very haunting, meloncholy picture; not "darker" as in voilent or nihilistic, but sadder. Beagle wisely plays against the conventions of fantasy, as the characters point out the cliches. Everyone, including The Unicorn, must learn to deal with loss and regret. Is there really a quote, unquote "happy" ending to this picture? Probably not, if you think about it. Real life, again, intrudes.

The artwork of this film is remarkable, based firmly in the Japanese style of wonderfully detailed, painterly backgrounds with simpler, more iconic characters. The unicorns have a lean, slightly feminine look to them; the sequences where they are chased by the marauding Red Bull (again, ahem) should capture the heart of every girl under 12. It's already captured the hearts of their parents' generation.

Post-Mortem: More than a few observers have made comparisons between this film and those by Hayao Miyazaki. They're more right than they know. The Last Unicorn was animated in Japan by a studio named Topcraft. Rankin-Bass had used Topcraft for their earlier television productions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King, and this was their most ambitious collaboration. After this movie, Topcraft's next project was with Miyazaki, who was directing the film version of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. You may have heard of it.

In 1985, Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki founded Studio Ghibli, and brought over the senior staff from Topcraft. You may also have heard of Ghibli. They made a couple movies here and there.


Toongirl said...

Just came across this thread.

For me, the best thing Rankin-Bass ever did with Topcraft was 'The Hobbit.' It was their one project where they did everything practically perfect.

Thanks to Topcraft, the character designs, backgrounds, & layout were superb. Clever use of limited animation necessary for a TV special. And Maury Laws haunting use of wind, string & percussion instruments gave 'The Hobbit' the feel of ages past it needed.

If one is going to pick on the songs in 'The Hobbit,' then they'd have to take their complaints up with Tolkien himself. After all, they're from the book.

About the Last Unicorn: Maybe I'm just being dense today, but I'm not quite sure what you're reading into Prince Lir's name and the symbology of the Red Bull. Cartoon Freudian analogies make my head hurt. ;)

greentea said...

Toongirl: I'm thinking the Red Bull/Prince Lir stuff is just from coincidences, the Red Bull energy drink and 'King Lear'. And yes, I liked 'The Hobbit' too, including its music. I don't like that they're making a live-action version..

But I think Unicorn is my favorite of Rankin-Bass, and I really wish they made more animated films . The three great Rankin-Bass works for me are 'The Last Unicorn', 'The Hobbit', and 'Flight of the Dragons'. And then there's the disappointment of 'Return of the King', which I thought was half-decent, half-crappy.

About the songs, the only one I'd agree could be left out was the 'That's All I Have to Say/ Now That I'm A Woman' combination of songs (but not the scenes where they take place). I wouldn't want the instrumental version taken out. I liked the America songs, I think they help set that sad, weary mood of the story, probably better than a narration of dialogue would.

I don't mind Mia Farrow's singing voice. It sounds like the Unicorn singing a sad song, which she is. Why do songs always have to be performed with overly-pretty, rehearsed voices that sound like every other voice out there?

And just to add, Brother Theodore did great voicing Gollum, which I prefer over CG Gollum, and in Unicorn where he played the humpbacked sidekick of the witch. I just really like his voice.

I think it's too bad these Rankin-Bass films aren't noticed much..

greentea said...

Molly's "Damn you!" line is edited out on the recent DVD. More 'language' was also cut out, and there's not much in extras or behind-the-scenes stuff, that's a pity. The recent DVD has better cover art though.. But why does every release for this movie have to include a rainbow on the cover? I know unicorns and rainbows kind of go together, but for a film like this?

I'd like to buy the DVD, this is one of my most favorite movies, but I want the whole UNEDITED film. To be fair, the movie looked good on the DVD, but I'm not an expert on all that screen quality stuff.

I also read that there may be a live-action adaption of 'The Last Unicorn' planned. Bleh..

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