Last Unicorn

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"Shut up, you pretentious kneecap!" The Strangely Dark Rankin/Bass Film THE LAST UNICORN

Feb 21, 2010
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Animation; voice talent; music; imaginative story

Cons:Perhaps too intense and/or dark for the younger audience it may have been designed for

The Bottom Line: A wonderful example of the animated 1980's fantasy film, this is a slightly dark, but nonetheless excellent film that may be geared more for older audiences.


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

It's always struck me as kind of odd that many of the "childrens" films made in the 1970s and '80s have dark undertones swirling beneath the surface.  While for the most part they are rated G or PG, even films like Disney's The Rescuers (which may be my favorite Disney animation precisely because "it's that depressing one") seem strangely moody, perhaps becoming too intense for the younger audiences they propose to be marketed for.  1982's The Last Unicorn, produced by legendary animators Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr., falls into a similar category.  While the general view is that this is a children's film, I have to say that there's plenty of violent, depressing, and frankly disturbing scenes in this film; the entire mood of the picture is decidedly melancholic, and I would have to imagine that it might be too intense for younger audiences.  That said, I love this film.

Based on a novel by Peter S. Beagle, the story follows the last unicorn on a quest to find where all her fellow unicorns have gone.  After learning that a miserable king has unleashed a red bull that has driven all the other unicorns into the sea, the last unicorn sets off with a bumbling magician and a kindly older woman to confront the red bull.  Upon reaching their destination, the magician is forced to change the unicorn into a woman to save her from the bull's wrath, but now that she's been separated from her true identity, will she have the desire to save the unicorns trapped by the king?

Rankin and Bass turned chief animation for this film over to a Japanese studio (the same one responsible for Hayao Miyazaki's Warriors of the Wind) who created nice character design and wispy backgrounds.  Movements are fluid, and the coloration seems appropriate to the story.  I particularly liked the animation used on the red bull, whose otherworldly bright color seems to scorch through the film itself.  The animation seems somewhat dated by today's standards, but I think that's part of the reason why I like the film so much; it almost forces the viewer to use his or her imagination in making the more drab visuals come to life. 

Voice acting in the film is universally good, with Mia Farrow in the title role giving the unicorn/human character a vulnerable, somewhat naive nature.  Her companion, the magician Schmendrick, is voiced playfully by Alan Arkin, who gives the character a goofy likable persona while Tammy Grimes as the world-weary Molly is slightly cranky but wise.  Christopher Lee gives the evil King Haggard just enough devious attributes as to make him seem like somewhat of a victim, and Jeff Bridges rounds out the main cast as Haggard's son Prince Lir.  In smaller voice roles, we get Angela Lansbury as a diabolical traveling carnival owner, Brother Theodore as her mangled cohort, and Keenan Wynn as a rogue woodsman.  All in all, the voice cast gives this production plenty of polish.

Music in the film is another worthwhile element, with Jimmy Webb's original music (with several songs sung by the cast members) coming across as well as those in your average Disney film.  Rock group America also performs several numbers, which are pretty decent folky numbers that perfectly work with the general feel of the film.

As I mentioned, this film perhaps would come across as a little too intense and/or distressing for young audiences.  Scenes involving the red bull charging at the unicorn or a harpy tearing apart several victims would probably be scary for youngsters, and scenes such as a tree turning into a busty woman and smothering Schmendrick in her bosom might be somewhat uncomfortable.  There's nothing blatantly offensive in the film (although in some versions, there are a couple of "damn"s in the voice track), but the overall feel of the film is sometimes depressing and surprisingly unhappy for much of its duration.

The Last Unicorn is available on DVD in a 25th Anniversary Edition from Lions Gate that includes a brief interview/discussion with the film's writer Peter S. Beagle in which he explains some of the inspiration for the novel the film is based on.  I would've liked to have gotten more information about the actual making of this film, but I guess the DVD was more designed for children, especially with the inclusion of an "Escape the Red Bull" trivia game and a "Schmendrick's Magical Gallery" feature.  The print for the film looks pretty flawless, and this is probably the version of this film for one to seek out.

Containing much more of a moody atmosphere than most children's flicks, The Last Unicorn may not be the perfect, PC-friendly animated film many parents would want their kids to see, but as a fantasy that perhaps has more to offer older audiences than younger ones, it works precisely.  The vintage '80s animation in the film is likely to provide some viewers with a warm nostalgic feeling, and while the style looks dated by today's standard, it's well done and accompanied by nice music.  I'd have to say that Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin's film is one of the animated films I'll always remember fondly; it's got an imaginative story that works on several levels and should appeal to almost any audience willing to give it a shot.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children up Ages 8

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