Every once in a while, a movie, or book, or story comes down the road that just clicks with me, and, seemingly, with other fantasy fans. Oddly enough, a number of them have come from the Rankin/Bass studio, which I lampooned mercilessly in an earlier article about the Rankin/Bass Christmas Special RPG. Although the animated Christmas specials were my first exposure to R&B, so to speak, their place in my heart was really cemented by their production of The Hobbit, which, in some ways, put my feet on the same road they tread today. This was by no means R&B’s only fantasy film, however, as they also brought us versions of The Return of the King, the Wind in the Willows, and, the subject of today’s article, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.
In the late 70s and early 80s, there were a slew of swords and sorcery and fantasy movies. Sadly, most of them were awful. Even as a kid or teen, I knew how bad they were. I was a foaming Lord of the Rings fan, but I thought Bakshi should be strung up for his movie of it (I know as an adult it wasn’t entirely his fault, but I can’t forgive him. Sorry, Ralph.) I liked Conan the Barbarian, but I mostly thought it was goofy and fun, and I actually liked The Sword and the Sorcerer better, despite the flying sword blades. Somehow, in the middle of all this dreck, The Last Unicorn slipped quietly past the swinging swords and encamped itself firmly in my heart.
I don’t know if I’ve ever run into a fantasy fan of my generation who hasn’t seen this movie. It seems to have utterly penetrated the minds and memories of those of us who grew up in the 80s. The bizarrely semi-Anime look of the characters, the stellar voice-cast, and the occasionally bizarre plot twists all live in my nostalgic recollections of the film. When the movie was at last released in Blu-Ray this past February, we scooped it up, and we recently watched it. I was fascinated at the elements that stood the test of time and those that had become ridiculous through eyes grown somewhat cynical.
It’s hard not to notice just how damned good the voice cast is for The Last Unicorn. All the major roles seem well-thought out and well-cast. Mia Farrow is ethereal and fey as the titular character, and she does a fine job of seeming quite alien from human emotion at times. Her only real downfall is the fact that they had her sing one of the two songs she has during the film. Alan Arkin could not be more brilliantly cast as the voice of Schmendrick the Magician (“Last of the red hot swamis!”), by turns arrogant and pathetic. Tammy Grimes, an actress I really only know as the voice of Albert the Mouse from another R&B animated piece (“Yes, father”), is incredible as Molly Grue. Her haunting dialogue with Schmendrick and the Unicorn when she first realizes what the Unicorn is remains some of the most emotionally wrenching stuff in the film for me. Jeff Bridges is stunning, as always. His Prince Lir is sad and romantic, and he *can* sing, clearly.
Perhaps some of the best cast characters are actually fairly minor ones. Angela Lansbury plays Mommy Fortuna, an arrogant witch who captures the Unicorn and who accepts her rather awful fate with a sense of glee. The always-entertaining Brother Theodore plays Ruhk, Mommy Fortuna’s hunchback servant. I swear…that man is just born to play the voices of insane, misshapen creatures. The fantastic comedian Robert Klein has a memorable turn as a scatter-brained butterfly. Christopher Lee puts in an incredible job as the movie’s “Villain”, King Haggard, who isn’t really evil so much as selfish. Even some of the tiniest roles have great performances. Most people who’ve seen the movie remember the skull that screams “Uuuuunicorn!” but few recall that it was voiced by Rene Auberjonois!
The music of the film is…well…let’s just say it’s no Disney film. Composer Jimmy Webb provides a few songs performed by the band America, such as the theme, Man’s Road, and In the Sea. Unfortunately, over halfway through the movie, it attempts to become a musical, and both Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges sing songs as their characters. When I was younger, I knew something struck me as odd about this, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As an adult, I can see that, having *not* been a musical for over half its length, suddenly becoming one is so completely jarring as to be almost nonsensical. To compound this oddness, Mia Farrow is *terrible.* Jeff Bridges holds his own, if barely, but Mia is just dreadful. So much so that they actually redubbed her for one song, begging the question, why not both? The score, also written by Jimmy Webb, is fine. Not terribly memorable, but adequate.
Now, I will warn you, if you’re like me, and you get a nostalgia attack after watching this movie and decide you must own the soundtrack, you may have a bit of a hunt. The soundtrack was never released in the U.S., but it’s relatively easy to find on eBay, as it was released in Germany as Das Letzte Einhorn. Don’t worry; it’s still in English, and both of Mia Farrow’s are redubbed by a better singer. This is definitely a winning situation.
When the movie came out, Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the screenplay, said it was too Japanese looking. I disagree, although I can see his point as well. I think the Rankin-Bass pieces, especially the fantasy ones, have a look very distinct from both U.S. animation and Japanese animation. When the character of Lady Amalthea appears (not going to spoil anything here), however, she’s clearly an anime princess, and I personally can’t really stand her or her spoiled attitude.
There are some really beautiful design choices throughout the film, and the characters have very distinct looks to them. The Unicorn, as the book makes clear should be true, looks nothing like a horned horse. And the harpy Celaeno, when she appears, is truly terrifying and as alien a creature as one could ask for.
The Blu-Ray is actually a surprisingly beautiful transfer. I was concerned at the first few seconds of film, but as soon as characters appear, everything is deliciously crisp and clear. Overall, they’ve got a beautiful copy of the film, and it’s hard to imagine a more pristine version exists.
If you’re like me, you’ll change the audio from the 25th anniversary version to the original version, because otherwise, Molly Grue doesn’t swear, and what the Hell good is that? Without Molly roaring “Damn you, where have you been!?” at the Unicorn, her performance does actually lose a little something. At least we were distracted by it.
There are some very good featurettes, including a making of film, and a very charming gallery of fan art and photos. There’s also some commentary from Peter S. Beagle and the publisher Connor Cochran that I haven’t heard yet. I understand it’s mostly about the book, rather than the movie, but I’m definitely interested in watching it with this commentary.
The film holds up well, with a few hiccups. It never hit me how much of the movie is Schmendrick being yelled at by other characters, but it’s true. He’s virtually the only competent character in the movie, but he still gets crap from everyone else. My husband is actually actively pissed off about it.
There’s also sort of an odd chunk of plot missing from the scene where Schmendrick is the guest of Captain Cully and his forest outlaws. Everything seems fine one moment, then Schmendrick is suddenly casting a spell to escape (and failing) the next. It’s very odd.
Other than this, and Lady Almathea’s vacuous nature (she’s not much of a heroine, really…Molly Grue is far more interesting and lively), the movie really still feels great. Prince Lir’s fantastic speech about being a hero and understanding the nature of sacrifice still really gets to me, and the ending has that kind of sweet and sad quality that marked all the books that really affected me as a kid and teen. Maybe that’s why the Narnia books never really grew on me. The books that mattered to me were books like The Lord of the Rings, Watership Down, and The Last Unicorn. Yes, the endings are good ones in all of them, but none of them are completely happy. Frodo sails to the Undying Lands, Hazel goes on to join El-Ahrairah’s Owsla, and Lady Amalthea and Lir…well…watch the movie, if you don’t know. I won’t spoil it here. But it’s a good ending…just not a happy one.
Is The Last Unicorn a movie you have nostalgia for? Do you think it stands the test of time, or is the Last Unicorn one too many? Is there a movie, animated or otherwise, that you put in the same category? Sound off; we want to hear about it!