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"The Last Unicorn": A Sublime Classic

by on August 11, 2011

Though it may be neglected on most lists of great animated films, The Last Unicorn is a hallmark of the 1980s and an easy contender for the finest animated achievement from Rankin/Bass Productions. An adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name by Peter S. Beagle, it offers an incisive and faithful screenplay from the author himself; evocative, anime-influenced artistry; and an earnest story that ultimately treads well off the beaten path of fantasy tales. This is a too-rare family film that truly lives up to the name, being just as entertaining and meaningful to viewers of any age as the book itself.

In Beagle’s mythological, medieval setting many fantastic creatures exist, but none more noble or awe-inspiring than the unicorn. They are practically angels on four legs. Where they dwell nature flourishes in perpetuity. Even seeing a unicorn is considered a great blessing, for their beauty is impeccable, and they are immortal in the sense that they are ageless. One such creature has dwelled in her forest since time immemorial, but in the opening scene of this tale she overhears two hunters conversing about the existence of the unicorns. The younger of the pair doubts they are anything more but the stuff of fairy tales, while the elder man gainsays him but remarks that the uncanny “feel of these woods” suggests it is the dwelling place of the last unicorn. Though at first she dismisses this as parochial mortal talk, soon she is unsettled enough by the idea that she sets out to confirm the truth. She hears unsettling things, rumors of a demonic “Red Bull” herding unicorns, and its unknown connection to the domain of the elderly King Haggard. Even so she presses on, overcoming adversity and gaining new companions in her quest.

The Last Unicorn is not a sad story, but its solemnity is a huge element of what makes it so refreshing. In one broad, thematic sense at least it is quite like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; a quest must be fulfilled for the greater good, but in time it becomes clear that there are trade-offs to its fulfillment and irrevocable sacrifices that must be made for its success. Rather than offer easy answers and a complete happily-ever-after ending, the story is appropriately serious and arrives at a conclusion that respects both its characters and the audience. Beyond that, its small but well-explored core cast renders the film an intimate experience that leaves viewers deeply invested in the outcome. No protagonist finishes the tale in the same state as they started, a fact that is satisfying in some cases and deeply bittersweet in others.

As an immortal being of high stature the Unicorn has her own wider view of the world, molded by her awareness of her place in it. This is a creature that takes offense at being mistaken for a horse and sustains her dignity even when she’s imprisoned. But she does not look down on humans or mortals. Her motivation to know that she is not alone in the world is relatable, and a major plot twist halfway through the film prompts tremendous character development. Her two human companions, Schmendrick the magician and Molly Grue, are both memorable in their own way. Schmendrick is a well-meaning incompetent, more adept at talking his way through a difficult situation than he is at performing magic; dreaming of becoming a true magician but feeling melancholy and humble over how he’s limited to tricks and simple illusions. But unlike most characters in the story he has sufficient clarity of insight to know the unicorn for who she is and the strength of character to assist when it counts and stay with her throughout her journey. Throughout the tale he displays moments of brilliance that suggest greatness waiting to break out, but Schmendrick comes into his own thanks to his selflessness and strength of character rather than a fixation on his own mastery.

For her part, Molly is a middle-aged woman playing caretaker to a slovenly band of outlaws, so embittered with her life that her wonder at first seeing the unicorn temporarily gives way to deep frustration that such a blessed meeting didn’t happen long ago to spare her years of broken dreams. She drops everything to accompany Schmendrick and the unicorn she so reveres, proving herself an able companion and an empathetic woman. Perhaps the most impressive case of writing and characterization lies with those who might have been pure villains in lesser hands, King Haggard and his son, Prince Lir. Haggard is unmistakably an antagonist—a harsh and self-centered old man, showing no real warmth toward another human being. Yet his motivations run deep into the very core of his being; few may even think of forgiving him, but it takes a heart nearly as cold as his to not pity him. Lir is as earnest and thoughtful a man as Haggard is severely aloof, divorced from his father’s scheming and a protagonist easy to like and root for even though the movie is more than half over by the time he’s introduced.

Though it dates back to 1982, time has been very kind to this movie. The animation, done by the animation studio Topcraft, the forerunner to what would become Studio Ghibli, is consistent and detailed even if relatively limited at points, and the detail is something to behold. The Blu-ray transfer makes the artistry a real feast for the eyes, if only because of the evocative landscapes. Yet when it counts key moments in the film are just stunning, with parts of it animated in 1s rather than 2s. All scenes with the Red Bull are particularly impressive; it is massive, relentless, seemingly unstoppable, terror incarnate. Great praise is also deserved for the climatic act of the film; it is an epic event and yet all details are wonderfully done, right down to the unicorn’s expressions at a key moment. The soundtrack written by songwriter Jimmy Webb and performed by the folk rock band America always suits the mood, with the somber “Man’s Road” standing out in particular. Here, songs complement events rather than shape them as happens in your standard animated musical. There are very limited cases of characters singing, but when that happens it’s in context and feels perfectly right for the story and for those characters. It would be a poor oversight to not praise the stellar voice acting, starring Mia Farrow (the Unicorn), Alan Arkin (Schmendrick), Tammy Grimes (Molly), Jeff Bridges (Prince Lir), and Christopher Lee (King Haggard). Everyone brings great feeling to their performances, and the unicorn’s distinctiveness from the human voices is an admirable achievement. For my money, though, Christopher Lee’s Haggard is an absolute marvel; never has such an aged old man appeared so formidable in animation, and yet the viewer’s ability to empathize with him is a tremendous testament to the nuance that he brings to the role.

The extras on this Blu-Ray edition are great supplementary material, as all good extras are. The original trailer for the movie is offered here in starkly low quality, though it’s welcome as a piece of history at least. The main attraction is definitely the audio commentary featuring Mr. Beagle and his publisher, Connor Cochran, as their ongoing dialogue offers substantive insight into many moments and remarks about how the film adapts the story. Story details that didn’t make it into the movie are discussed as well, rendering the extra especially interesting and enticing for any who have not yet had the pleasure of reading the book. The Art Contest Gallery offers a treasure trove of excellent fan art and crafts, the result of an art contest held in 2010 that resulted in a horde of entries from all over the world. The “Immortal Characters” featurette features a quality discussion about the creative process for the film and the acting for assorted characters that includes comments from Beagle, Cochran, animation historian Jerry Beck, producer/director Jules Bass, and Christopher Lee. “The Tail of The Last Unicorn” features Mr. Beagle commenting on the story and some of its themes, as well as its lasting impact over the years. “Peter S. Beagle and His Work” offers a mass of text about the author and his career, a great resource for any viewers left wanting to sample more of his storytelling. “Schmendrick’s Magical Gallery” features images including development sketches, character concept art by Hidemi Kubo, cover art for the many editions of the book, and more. Highlights definitely include the cover art done by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon for the comic book adaptation from IDW and a stupendous collection of illustrations from Rebekah Naomi Cox, one of which adorns the 40th anniversary edition of the book. Also noteworthy is the presence of the original theatrical audio track, allowing viewers to watch the film completely uncensored, in contrast to the 25th anniversary edition DVD release. This is highly recommended, as a certain scene definitely loses emotional impact otherwise.

The Last Unicorn is a genuine classic that deserves to have a long shelf life just like its acclaimed source material, and there is no doubt that this reasonably-priced Blu-ray release from Lionsgate will be the definitive edition for a long time to come. This is by far the best the film has ever looked on home video, and the extras go above and beyond the call of duty for collectors and devoted fans. Meanwhile, open-minded new viewers will discover an example of first-class storytelling and a splendid demonstration of what hand-drawn animation can achieve.

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