Last Unicorn

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"Tell me, butterfly, have you seen the other unicorns? Or am I the last..."

Apr 9, 2009
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Pros:Extraordinarily faithful adaptation, well voiced, charming story

Cons:Gratuitous songage

The Bottom Line: Faithful, charming family movie, based on a truly amazing novel.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

This is a review of the film only.  The DVD is available as a region 2 from Amazon from £3.98 or from Amazon.com as a region 1 for $7.49 new or $2.54 used!  It is also, apparently, available as a video on demand.

It is easy to forget, in the computer age that is 2009, that animated films were once all hand drawn; each cell painstakingly illustrated; backgrounds pencilled and inked, the artists' hands shaping the final product. A Ralph Bakshi film is immediately recognisable as coming from his studio, and instantly distinguishable from an offering from the Disney conglomerate. To modern eyes, much of the animation from the late 20th Century may seem primitive, lacking the 3D rendering of today's computer generated products, and also lacking the consistency of style that most modern animated popular cinematic films seem to have.

The Last Unicorn dates from 1982, and comes from the pen of Peter S Beagle, adapted by Mr Beagle from his novel of the same name, and the directorship of Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. It follows the story of the eponymous Last Unicorn (Mia Farrow) and her quest for her missing people - is she truly the last (after all, unicorns rarely encounter each other anyway)? If so, where have they all gone? A butterfly cries "You can find the others if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints" ... Along the way, she meets Angela Lansbury's Mommy Fortuna ("creatures of the night, brought to light") and her seemingly inept wizard Schmendrick (Alan Arkin). He summons Robin Hood for Captain Cully's men, and acquires another companion on the quest in the apparently bitter drab Molly Grue (voiced by Tammy Grimes). Has King Haggard's Red Bull really corralled all the unicorns, and are they gone for all time? Only by braving Haggard's grim and dour castle will they find out.

Not surprisingly, the film is very faithful to the book, as Peter S Beagle wrote both. Certain scenes are shortened (for example, the descriptions of Mommy Fortuna's apparently mythical caged beasts), and others somewhat altered to allow for songs - animated films in the 70s and 80s, especially those for families, seemed to demand songs (see also Charlotte's Web, the animated version). However, the language is spot on, often taken word for word from the novel, and it is beautiful. The dialogue sings as many of the songs cannot manage. It is amusing and modern in places, and profound and wistful in others. Alan Arkin voicing Schmendrick in particular delivers his dialogue exactly as I imagined it when reading the book (which I am, as an aside, currently re-reading). Christopher Lee as Haggard is utterly superb - creepy yet indefinably sad. Mia Farrow is, perhaps, slightly miscast, especially as her voice cannot quite do justice to some of the songs her part demands. Jeff Bridges as Haggard's adopted son Lir is competent, though largely unmemorable.

The soundtrack is enormously popular in Germany, as is the film, apparently. The songs were written by Jimmy Webb, and some were performed by America, and others by the actors as part of the action. They are competent, though of their time. I do like the theme song, however, I'm not so fond of some of the in-movie songs - I am not a big fan of people (and, indeed, unicorns) just breaking into song for no apparent reason.

The animation style is fairly simple, yet somewhat ethereal. It is not photo realistic. The animators (mostly Japanese, though the characters were designed by Lester Abrams, who also designed the characters for TV's animated The Hobbit) seem to have tried to tread a line between children's cartoony caricature type personifications and a more adult fantastic style. It tends more towards the childlike, though with a slightly creepy yet winsome edge in places. The unicorn herself is drawn much as she is described in the book (indulge me this quote):
"She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. Her neck was long and slender, making her head seem smaller than it was, and the mane that fell almost to the middle of her back was as soft as dandelion fluff and as fine as cirrus. She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles, and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight"
Although her face looks, perhaps, a little simplistic and even cutsie, the animators have resisted the temptation to make her look too horse-like, and allow the deerness to show. King Haggard is appropriately angular and grey, and Schmendrick lanky and awkward.

This is not a long film, clocking in at around an a hour and a half. It is, in places, utterly charming, moving and beautiful, though in others clearly aimed at a younger audience. The book is, unsurprisingly, better. It is, nevertheless, a worthy effort, and, indeed, a worthwhile companion to the book. It is far from perfect - the character design could have been a little less 'cartoony' and, perhaps, a little more fantastic. I would have preferred it if the penchant for breaking into random song were lost. I'd like to have seen more of the book left in (it's not a long book, and a book I can unreservedly recommend). Nevertheless, as it is currently available on Amazon quite cheaply, it is certainly worth a watch - you'll never think of unicorns in exactly the same way again.

Recommended.

If you liked this, you may also like Ralph Bakshi's Wizards (heading for the adult animation), or Charlotte's Web (a truly superior example of 70's children's animation).  Watership Down is another animated feature based on an outstanding book - again, flawed, but worthy.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: None of the Above
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12

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