When author Peter S. Beagle learned that his fantasy novel The Last Unicorn was being adapted by Rankin/Bass, he was horrified. Beagle felt that animation would be the best way to capture his tale on the big screen, but he disliked the bulk of Rankin/Bass' work and felt certain the movie would be a disaster if placed in their hands. Alas, they were the only studio interested at the time, and at least they were offering Beagle the opportunity to write the screenplay himself. Fortunately for Beagle (and for the rest of us), Rankin/Bass and a group of talented collaborators served up a lovely, engaging film that rivals the early work of Don Bluth.
The Last Unicorn is the sort of children's film no one makes anymore – possibly for good reason, but probably not. It's willing to risk upsetting its younger viewers, because it respects their ability to process the emotions it contains. Though the tale is a colorful fantasy filled with vivid imagery and memorably silly characters, the film has a strong undercurrent of mournfulness and has a tendency to turn legitimately threatening from time to time. The film's dialogue explicitly warns viewers not to expect conventional warmth: “There are no happy endings, because there are no endings,” one character says. In its original version, the film is also a good deal edgier than most children's movies: there are brief instances of nudity, swearing and violence in this G-rated animated flick. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis' description of Aslan: “Who said anything about safe? Of course it isn't safe. But it is good.”
The story is complicated, but let us say that it fuses unique ideas with a handful of familiar fantasy tropes. There's a unicorn (Mia Farrow, Hannah and Her Sisters), who thinks she may be the very last unicorn on earth. There's a friendly but clumsy wizard (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine) who devotes himself to helping the unicorn. There's a wicked witch (Angela Lansbury, Beauty and the Beast), a mad king (Christopher Lee, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings), the king's handsome son (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski), a vengeful harpy (Keenan Wynn, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), a daffy butterfly (Robert Klein, Radioland Murders), a talking skull (Rene Auberjonois, The Little Mermaid), a giant red bull, spells, curses, illusions and transformations.
There are a lot of story threads and characters packed into the film's 93-minute running time, but the movie doesn't feel rushed – it just moves and doesn't stop moving. The animation (provided by Tophat, the group that would soon go on to collaborate with Hayao Miyazaki on the gorgeous Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) has a graceful, fluid quality that perfectly suits the film's lush fantasy setting, though it could be argued that some of the character design is a little bland (this particularly applies to the unicorn herself, who has an oddly inexpressive quality). The voice acting is mostly excellent, save for Jeff Bridges' bored-sounding turn (though his wobbly, falsetto singing voice is oddly touching).
The film's soundtrack is loaded with songs penned by Jimmy Webb – some performed by the rock band America as musical narration, and some performed by the cast members. It's interesting to note that none of these songs are the sort of playful sing-a-longs one expects in a movie like this (in other words, there's no “Under the Sea” here). The melancholy title song is incredibly catchy, though, and the most of the lyrics are surprisingly lovely (“And it seems like all is dying and would leave the world to mourn / In the distance hear the laughter of the last unicorn”).
The Last Unicorn is a bit more serious-minded than most Disney productions of the era, but it's incredibly distinctive when contrasted to the animated movies of today. Even Pixar's wonderful productions (many of which are actually better movies than The Last Unicorn) try to compensate for their heavier emotional material with large helpings of frantic silliness. Though the story can be a little opaque on occasion and there are a few rough edges, there's a soulful maturity here that grants the tale an unexpected emotional weight. Such films aren't quite as rare as unicorns, but it's nonetheless an unexpected pleasure to find them.
The Last Unicorn
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 1982