I always thought that I’d seen all or most of the movies everybody saw as a kid, especially in the animation and/or sci-fi/fantasy realm, but lately it seems that I have not. Apparently everybody had seen Krull, for instance, but I hadn’t even heard of it.
Another that I hadn’t seen that was apparently a big part of people’s childhoods was the 1982 Rankin & Bass animated film The Last Unicorn, based on the astoundingly popular 1968 fantasy novel of the same name. I didn’t know this was as huge a cultural touchstone as it was; I thought it was just that movie that was on Disney Channel some evenings when I was a wee lad.
Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass had made names for themselves in the animation world with those stop-motion and animated Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Eventually, they moved their very distinctive style to longer fare, usually in the fantasy genre, including a 1977 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which tells the whole book in 90 minutes (Peter Jackson, take note).
For years, they’d been trying to get the rights to Peter S. Beagle’s novel The Last Unicorn and, through happenstance, the rights holder, Michael Chase Walker, was looking to get the movie made. Badda-bing and, if I may, badda-boom. They insisted Beagle himself write the screenplay, which nobody had a problem with, since he’d actually helped with Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings adaptation (which is weird but pretty good all things considered).
The story of The Last Unicorn, for the benefit of anyone out there like me who’d never seen it, is this: a lone unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow) learns from overhearing some hunters in the forest, that she is the last of her kind, and she decides to go see for herself. Unicorns are floaty, immortal creatures who don’t have much use for emotions, but she still wants to know if she’s the last or not. She learns from a butterfly (voiced by Robert Klein of all people) that all the other unicorns were herded away to the ends of the Earth by a demonic giant Red Bull. She decides she’s going to save the others and bring them back, but she’s quickly captured by a witch named Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury), who puts the Unicorn in a traveling sideshow full of animals the witch has made up to look like mythical creatures. Because nobody can see a unicorn’s horn, Mommy puts a fake one on her head. The only other REAL mythical creature there is a harpy who would very much like to eat her captor.
Mommy’s employee is the rather useless magician Schmendrick (Alan Arkin), who is a very nice guy working for a bad person. He eventually helps the Unicorn escape, and the harpy eats Mommy. The Unicorn and Schmendrick eventually pick up another traveling companion in the form of Molly Grue, a lover of the infamous highwayman Captain Cully. As they get close to the castle of King Haggard (Christopher Lee), the supposed keeper of the Red Bull, the bull itself appears and chases down the Unicorn. Only Schmendrick’s magic can save her, and it turns her into a human, at which point the bull promptly stops caring and leaves. However, the Unicorn is now mortal and is overcome with the feeling of being finite.
They eventually make it to King Haggard’s castle and he doesn’t really care for them immediately, but he allows them all to stay, believing the unicorn girl to be Schmendrick’s niece, Lady Amalthea. The King’s son, Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges), begins to fall in love with Lady Amalthea and she begins to return the feelings, which she’d ever had before. But how will she save the other unicorns if she becomes a human with love in her heart?
As you can see, there’s a lot of imagination going on here, and a great deal of world-building. Beagle has the whole civilization pretty well mapped out, and populates his story with colorful and memorable characters and creatures. They also managed to get an absurdly famous cast of actors. Besides those I’ve already listed, other actors include Keenan Wynn, Tammy Grimes, Rene Auberjonois, Brother Theodore, and the great and ubiquitous Paul Frees. AND, as if that weren’t enough, all the music was written by Jimmy Webb and performed by America. It’s amazing how many great people were involved in this movie, and how well it turned out.
I really enjoyed this movie. There’s a great tradition of non-Disney animated films out there that I’m slowly starting to get introduced to, and The Last Unicorn is one such example. It’s got more style and artistry than a lot of films that were coming out at the time and it has a truly brilliant script that helps it all hang together with the visuals. Even if Mia Farrow’s turn to sing a song isn’t all that great, I think all the other songs work pretty well. Plus, any time a movie can get Christopher Lee to actively seek out a place in the cast, you know you’re in for some good stuff.
Shout Factory and ITV have teamed up for this stellar Blu-ray release, which features a commentary track and a 45-minute making-of feature that goes a long way to explaining why the movie is as popular as it is but wasn’t, technically, a major financial success. It’s a glorious HD transfer and the sound is clean and dynamic. It was pleasure to watch this movie, and this is coming from an adult dude who had never seen it before. I can only imagine fans of the film already will find it doubly excellent.