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The Last Unicorn is another of the great “lost” animated productions, and for so many reasons that a description threatens to turn into a catalog. It was a lavish adaptation of one of the most beloved of fantasy novels, mentioned in the same breath along with the Narnia books and Tolkien’s Ring cycle; its failure at the box office sent it into a limbo from which it still has yet to emerge completely from and which has caused both its author and its audience much grief; and it features an array of talent from many countries, including what would eventually become the nucleus of one of the most prestigious animation studios on the world.
It’s also quite simply a wonderful movie, literate and intelligent, and that in itself is reason enough to see it even if it had no cult following. It deals with, as the title might imply, the last unicorn (Mia Farrow) — a creature living in a timeless forest where it is always spring, and where nothing ever changes except the outside world. The Unicorn has grown restless and curious, and has come to wonder if there are any others like her. Her fellow animals tell her of the Red Bull, a monstrous creature who herded all of the other unicorns to the end of the earth for reasons unknown. Find this beast, she reasons, and I shall find the others like me — and so she sets off to do exactly that.
The last unicorn of the title has heard stories of the Red Bull,
the beast who herded all of the other unicorns to the end of the earth.
Her journey brings her into the clutches of a witch’s sideshow, and the friendship of the incompetent magician Schmendrick (Alan Arkin), who’d like to do something a little more substantial than card tricks with his magic one day. He is able to set her free, and even lead her to the Red Bull where his real power manifests for the first time: he transforms her into a human girl. Unfortunately, the Unicorn doesn’t belong in a human form — “I fear this (mortal) body more than I do the Red Bull,” she laments — and it may indeed be impossible for her to change back. She also comes under the attention of King Haggard, the keeper of the Red Bull, who is convinced this girl is a unicorn is disguise, and will go to just about any lengths to test his theory.
What is most interesting about the story is how it is not really about the Unicorn’s quest, but about how her journey opens her eyes. At first she is rather self-important and closed-off: she only cares about the other unicorns, and not about anything else that crosses her path. She glosses over stories about how the iron-fisted Haggard has despoiled the land so that she can hear more about the Red Bull. It takes being human, and a certain degree of forgetting about her self-appointed mission, to discover what the real importance of this whole adventure has been. This extra layer of insight, and the poetic way the screenplay expresses it (as written by the book’s own author, Peter S. Beagle), is a big part of what makes the film stand out for those who see it. It’s not just a forgettable romp.
The Unicorn's quest brings her into the hands of Schmendrick, the incompetent magician who
hones his magic thanks to her — and the last maiden who waited fruitlessly for a unicorn to appear.
Many people are startled to discover on watching the film that the animation crew is not American or even European, but Japanese. The animation was the product of a studio named Topcraft, an oufit that had worked on other key Rankin-Bass productions, the TV adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King. In 1984, Topcraft were hired by a company named Tokuma Shoten to work on a production that would become even more legendary — and would also wind up only appearing in the USA in mutilated form, only to vanish for decades on end: Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind. After the success of that film in Japan, producers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata formed their own animation company, Studio Ghibli, and hired in most of the best people at Topcraft to fill the desks.
The film looks delightful, of course, and even if the animation is not as technically sophisticated as today’s productions — what could be? — it has a warmth and spirit to it that seems to have gone missing from most of the more recent digitally-enhanced work. Many individual moments are specifically reminiscent of Ghibli-era productions, too: in one shot, the Unicorn crosses a bridge while a heavy rain begins to fall, while birds nest in the hollow of a nearby tree and look on forlornly. The Red Bull itself is a masterful piece of animation work, downright terrifying to see (and probably a big part of the reason for the movie’s reputation as being too strong for children). The only major criticism I have is sometimes how the animation doesn’t really live up to the vigor of the voice performances; look at how blandly Schmendrick is rendered during his chest-thumping speech to the Unicorn in the carnival. Then again, that may just be me having seen so many other animated productions where such things are exaggerated to the point of absurdity.
Schmendrick transforms the Unicorn into a human girl, the better to keep her out of the hands of
King Haggard — he who herded the unicorns to the ends of the earth, but why?
Unicorn sports the most interesting voice cast for any English-language animated production I’ve seen yet. Many of the names are familiar: Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, Tammy Grimes, Christopher Lee. Some are now cult figures: Keenan Wynn and Rene Auberjonois. Most striking, however, is the presence of Brother Theodore (aka Theodore Gottlieb), the “stand-up tragedian” with a cult following of his own at least as enduring as the one for this film, and who voiced Gollum in both earlier Topcraft-animated Tokien adaptations to boot.
The problem behind the movie’s failure at the box office was that, like many other animated films that weren’t explicitly designed as “children’s movies,” it had no audience — none that the marketers could see, anyway. It was no Disney film; it was closer in spirit to riskier productions like The Plague Dogs, or even Miyazaki’s own Nausicäa, the latter of which had twenty minutes of character development and motivation sliced out of it by its American distributors. (That butchery soured Studio Ghibli on distributing any of their films Stateside for almost twenty years, and ironically enough it was Disney who struck a deal with them to bring their catalog into the USA — uncut and in its original language.)
It takes being mortal and vulnerable for the Unicorn to understand what her quest alone cannot show her.
If the way the movie has been treated inspires ire, it pales compared to the way Peter S. Beagle himself has been given short shrift. None of the current video versions of the film — especially not the Carleton / ITC video version available in the US and UK — generate any revenue for him, despite it having sold over 600,000 copies (and being of poor enough condition that it should never have been released in the first place). Someday I imagine this film, and its creator, will get the respect they both deserve. Today, sadly, is not that day.