Judge Joel Pearce thought he saw a unicorn once, but it was really just a dog wearing a fez.
"There are no happy endings, because nothing ends."—Schmendrick the Magician
The Last Unicorn is one of those films that many people my age remember fondly from their childhood. This is the first time I have seen it, and while I can't say that it is perfect, I certainly understand why it holds such a high place in so many hearts. Fans of this film adaptation of the Peter Beagle book have been waiting for years for it to arrive on DVD, and it is finally here thanks to the efforts of Lions Gate.
Like much fantasy fiction, The Last Unicorn takes place in a time of decline. The unicorns have vanished from the land, and magic has been diminished to cheap illusions and silly tricks. The last of the unicorns, oblivious to what has been happening in the outside world, discovers that the rest of her kind has been driven away by the Red Bull (no, not the drink). She sets off into the unfamiliar world of men, joining up with several sympathetic humans on her quest to find the rest of the unicorns.
In the course of their journey, the unicorn is turned into a human by Schmendrick, one of the companions she has picked up on the way. While this rescues her from the Red Bull, she begins to forget her nature and takes on some mortal traits. It becomes up to her companions to solve the puzzle of the unicorns and return her to her original form.
The Last Unicorn is incredibly ambitious. While it appears on the surface to be a typical children's fantasy film, there are several things that make it unique in the genre. For one thing, while it is fully aware of the conventions of fantasy fiction, it uses that knowledge to playfully riff on those conventions. It's full of clever nods to other fantasy and folk tales, including a number of small jabs that I missed the first time around. This awareness makes for a number of funny moments that us older fantasy fans can appreciate.
The film is also interested in the idea of nature. The nature of magic, the nature of humanity, the nature of a hero; all these are pondered by the movie in a very satisfying way. All of the characters need to learn what their nature is and accept the responsibilities that come with that nature. There are downsides to that for the unicorn as well as the human characters, as unicorns lack the depth of feeling that humans experience. This whole aspect of the film reminded me of the Elves in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The choice of immortality comes with a price, and there are times when even the best choice will leave you with deep regrets.
The other thing that The Last Unicorn does very well is capture the feeling of loss associated with good fantasy. There is a feeling of loss for a time of magic and imagination, which is felt even by characters who don't realize what the world was once like. The human desire for power and ownership has destroyed the beauty and wonder of magic, and it is only in a release of that ownership that the world of the past will be able to return.
Unfortunately, there are a few things holding the film back from being all it could have been. A whole book is being condensed into a 90-minute film, and everything feels rushed as a result. The very clever dialogue is too fast, so the jokes are not set up as well as they should be. The whole film lacks the patient, epic feel that would have fit perfectly with the content. The other major problem is the musical numbers. The '70s pop group America provides the soundtrack here, and their soft rock ballads feel out of place in a timeless fantasy film. Also, the songs don't seem at all necessary. Directors of animated films are finally discovering that musical numbers are not a necessity, and it's about time.
My other complaints with the film are minor. Some of the voice work is weak, especially from Mia Farrow as the unicorn. The animation is fairly low budget, and it has not aged as gracefully as some other animated features. What it lacks in detail and quality, though, The Last Unicorn makes up in creativity, so it is easy to look past the technical shortcomings and appreciate the heart of this satisfying fantasy.
While the movie is exactly the same as fans remember from their well-worn VHS tapes, the audio and video quality shouldn't have to be. I don't know where Lions Gate got their transfer source from, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was their local Blockbuster store. The colors are washed out, there is a good deal of print damage, and the full screen format makes everything look very cramped. There has been a widescreen version of the film released in Europe, and I bet it looks a lot better than this. The audio is about the same. The dialogue is clear, but everything sounds tinny and worn. There are no extras on this disc.
Since it has been released so cheaply, the technical weakness of this release should not hold back fans of The Last Unicorn. It is here at last, and still deserves to be added to your collection. Fans of fantasy who have not seen this film may find it worth checking out as well, as it is a delightful tale with hidden depth and meaning.
Also, you never know. With a live action version of The Last Unicorn currently in production, we may not have to wait too long to see a better edition of this animated gem.
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