I have been a fan of Rankin/Bass studios for as long as I can remember.
The 1977 animated Hobbit somehow become a very important film to me as a small child. Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer holiday special, and the rest of the stop motion specials, were really important to me as well and became the cornerstone of how I celebrated Christmas. Eventually, I felt the magic and heard the roar of Thundercats. It was fascinating when I put all the math together and realized they were all from the same two guys, Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass. It all made sense. Wind in the Willows, Flight of Dragons, Silverhawks, Mad Monster Party, Year Without a Santa Clause were all produced and/or directed by them. My personal favorite is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, based on Wizard of Oz writer, Frank L. Baum’s book of the same title.
Not surprisingly, my first job was working in a video store. I got to visit all these titles and so many more from so many animators every day. This is where I discovered a lost treasure, The Last Unicorn. I had never heard of it, never seen it. Yet somehow, it remained never watched until a few weeks ago. I had held it back. I did not want to think there was nothing more to see from Rankin/Bass. It was also not easy to get a hold of. For a long time it remained only on VHS, and by the time I found out about it, I was NOT going back to VHS. Not while DVDs were around. (a format I am loathed to watch today)
A few things lead to this historic (for me, at least) viewing. It amazingly showed up on Netflix, which the incredible that I could see it in high definition. Also, our kids were coming to visit from Germany and we wanted stuff to show them. We even slowly pieced together an HDMI projector, screen, chairs, and tiki torches to make a surprise outdoor theater for them. Eva, age 9, is a huge My Little Pony fan. So am I, in fact. The Last Unicorn was the first thing that came to mind. So here it was, my chance to finally see it, in my own theater, in HD, with kids. Their reviews were apparent in their watching. Sebastian, age 12, was silent in observation the whole time while Eva asked a thousand questions about how this world works.
The film starts with my favorite old animation trick, a multi screen composite shot made famous in Snow White. They paint the art on multiple glass screens and place them above each other at a distance. Each piece of art represents different level of distance in the shot. The camera pans by. The orientation of all planes from foreground to background seem to move at separate speeds and simulates movement through a 3D world. OK good nod to a classic. Great start. We meet traveling hunter who tell us, through conversation, that this is the forest of the titular last unicorn, voiced by Mia Farrow. She overhears this conversation, and the story begins. The film has delightful credits that play like an animated tapestry, one that shows up later in fact. As we meet characters, each one seems so classically Rankin/Bass. Squat grizzled beings that remind me of Hobbits, animals that could have been in the background of Rudolf, very familiar voices. But, it always comes down to the story.
The unicorn, who has no name, goes looking for other unicorns. She is disturbed to think she is the last one. She is shortly captured by a wandering strange animal show led by and old woman, Mommy Fortuna voiced by Angela Lansbury. She can see that she is a unicorn. Common folk see her as a mere mare, so she places a false second horn upon it. Visiting country folk gape at creatures like a manticore, troll, and dragon. There is also the unicorn and a harpy. Schmendrick, voiced by Alan Arkin, is the traveling show’s magician. He can see the Unicorn for what it is and tells her that there is glamour upon the cages where folks see monsters but they turn out to be sick old animals like a lion, chimp, and python. Only the unicorn and harpy are real mythological animals. The unicorn plots to set the harpy free, which she does with ease with the help of Schmendrick. It immediately attacks. Now I have to pause here to talk about this harpy. I’ve seen a lot of harpys in films. They are usually almost sexy, in a way. They always have uncovered amazing breasts and faces that are almost human but monstrous, like a vampire. This harpy is gross. It has a head like a dragon, body like a vulture, and sports what can only be described as three dangling teats. Horrifying. If I am horrified, the filmmakers did a good job. As the Harpy attacks, the old lady gleefully eggs it on to come for her. It does. It kills her. In an 80’s kids movie. It kills her. The unicorn escapes with the magician and the other animals are freed. I mention this scene in detail, because the whole thing is uncommonly unsettling in a kids film. You have poorly kept animals used for entertainment. There is the disgusting and vulgar harpy, there is a character essentially killing herself via mythical creature. Not a Disney film. Not a Ralph Bakshi film by any means, but not light. I’m pretty sure characters say things like “damn,” and “Hell,” and “I’ll kill you!”
There is more time to explore the world in the film. I found myself thinking of Legend of Zelda, Hayo Miyazaki films like Princess Mononoke, Final Fantasy, and other Japanese fantasies that take place in nature. Weirdly, I realized all those came after this film. The greenery is really green. Water is super watery. The fantasy is extra fantastical. This film had a large Japanese crew. It has a very stylized Shintoist approach to nature that lends it self well to the film.
The characters go on and meet new characters, one of which was a flirty elderly tree with giant boobs who grab and trap Schmendrick with her cleavage. If you have never seen this movie, your raised eyebrow is probably appropriate. They eventually take on Tammy Grimes voiced Molly Grue. This character broke my heart. She is an older, but not old woman who bursts into tears when she sees the unicorn. She is upset at it. She has searched for them all her life and she is angry at the unicorn for coming to her when she had become old and cynical. I was starting to feel this way about this film. Clearly, I was loving it, but inside I was mourning that loss of this film from my childhood.
Soon, we come to the end of the quest. A castle with a king they wish to talk to about all the missing unicorns. The group encounters the monstrous giant Red Bull guarding a castle. No, does not give anyone wings. A unicorn with wings? Really? You can’t have a Pegasus unicorn… that would be absurd… Anyway, earlier in the film, a butterfly told the unicorn that it was a giant red bull that drove all the other unicorns off. Same guy here. They cant take it, they cant pass it. The magician uses rash unpredictable magical power and turns the unicorn into an 80’s cliche, a lady. Animals (and mannequins!) transform into ladies in 80’s movie all the time. Especially in 80’s fantasy films. Ladyhawk and Willow just to make a short list. The added twist here is that Molly believes the Unicorn will go crazy as a human. The Unicorn does sound crazy. She can feel herself dying in a mortal body and has a insane scar were her horn was. With the unicorn now a woman, the Red Bull is disinterested in the group and flees. The characters meet the characters from the castle and the plot moves on, with the characters deciding to stay with the king they have been seeking , voiced by Christopher Lee,and his son, voiced by Jeff Bridges.
The tone of the film from this point to the climax is one of madness. The castle had crazy faces hidden in all the corridors of the rocky fortress. There is a mad clock with off putting twisted sounds. There is a drunken talking skeleton. At one point, the Unicorn, now called Amalthea, now going completely insane and withdrawn, sees a sun set on the ocean horizon and it seems to melt. The film borrows from Sleeping Beauty and Don Bluth films by surrounding the castle ground with twisted thorns. The king is also quite mad. It seems he has had all the unicorns trapped in the tide, and now he has the last one. Christopher Lee does a great job here. It really just drives home the point to me, a massive Star Wars fan, that Christopher Lee really phoned it in in those Star Wars films. He was so much better here than in that.
The story is resolved, of course, and the characters go off to live in harmony and whatever. The world gets back to normal and the film ends. The same can be said of any good fantasy. The End.
To no surprise for a life long Rankin/Bass fan, I loved this film. The art direction, voice acting, backgrounds, animation shots, were all what I expect from these guys. There was one dark spot on this movie, the songs. The band America did the songs. Apparently, it was fun in the 80’s to have rock bands do soundtracks. Toto in Dune. Queen in Flash Gordon and Highlander. However, I chuckled every time it came on. Sappy 70’s rock song about narwhals and the wind, just felt out of place. I watched this film twice and I side smiled and giggled my way through every song.
Overall, this film is only slightly dated, but still a great story, beautifully executed. If it weren’t for the less than Disney hit making songs aspect, this could have been one of the greats. Sadly, it remains mostly obscure like so many 80’s fantasy films. Return to Oz and The Adventures of Mark Twain to name a couple. The kids loved it. I loved it. That’s good enough for me.