Judge Joel Pearce is frightened by people who have an unhealthy obsession with unicorns.
"There are no happy endings, because nothing ends."-Schmendrick the Magician
When I reviewed the first release of The Last Unicorn for the site, I was pleasantly surprised. Not because it's a great film by any set of criteria, but because it was far more ambitious than other animated films from that era. Based on the Peter S. Beagle book, The Last Unicorn attempts to be both a requiem and a renaissance for fairy tales. As I've returned to the film to review the 25th Anniversary Edition, I've found myself less forgiving of The Last Unicorn's many flaws. It's a much better edition, though.
The story begins with a lonely unicorn (Mia Farrow, The Omen), who is surprised to overhear that she may be the last of her kind. She embarks from her forest to try and find others, to no avail. Instead, she is captured by a witch, but set free by a pathetic, would-be magician named Schmendrick (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine). They travel together, heading for the lands of the lonely King Haggard (Christopher Lee, Corpse Bride). The King has captured the unicorns, employing his fiery red bull to force them into the sea. In order to protect the unicorn, Shmendrick transforms her into a human, but things become complicated when Haggard's son Lir (Jeff Bridges, Tideland) falls in love with her.
The more time I spend with The Last Unicorn, the more I think about how great it could have been. All of the elements are in place to tell a great fantasy tale, but the pieces themselves are deeply flawed. As a result, it can only ever be truly appreciated as either a positive childhood memory or a noble attempt at offering children something new and different.
The new transfer only highlights the aging, rough animation. The backdrops are beautifully painted, creating enchanting vistas for the action. The character animation is weak, though, and the figures never look like they belong in such a beautiful place. This is not the only character problem. While the performers are all excellent, few of them are good choices for the roles they have been given. Alan Arkin is one of the worst possible choices for Schmendrick, and it's impossible to adjust to hearing his voice come out of that image. The same is true of Jeff Bridges, whose portrayal of Lir is not as heroic sounding as the character needs to be. Mia Farrow sounds a bit anemic, and only Christopher Lee really brings what's needed to his role.
The above problems keep us from connecting with the production, a problem that is amplified by the rushed script that only occasionally reveals the intelligence and creativity of the source material. Like so many fairy tales, The Last Unicorn is a requiem, which takes a careful look at a world too dull and mundane to believe in fairy tales anymore. It also tries to connect children with a beautiful, fantastic world where imagination can create magic. Unfortunately, too many moments fall flat, preventing it from becoming a film that could share a shelf with Peter Pan or The Neverending Story. In my last review, I mentioned that a new version of The Last Unicorn was in production. Unfortunately, that production has been since halted.
At very least, this new DVD offers fans a much more appealing package. The picture is widescreen, and well-mastered enough to appreciate all of the print damage and weaknesses in animation. The color saturation, sharpness, and black levels are all vastly superior, and it is in its original aspect ratio. It has been mastered from a PAL print, but there are only a few issues from that transfer. The sound has been mixed up to 5.1, and while the mix rarely makes use of the full sound stage, the dialogue is clear and the music spreads across the front nicely. Several of the sequences make use of the surrounds as well. There are also a few special features, including a couple of DVD games, a production featurette, and a photo gallery. For fans of the film, this is worth an initial purchase or an update.
For the rest of us, I'm not sure it's worth checking out a film that shows so much more potential than payoff. It would be far better to get a hold of the book instead. It's strange sometimes which films develop a cult following, and this is one that I will never fully understand. For those of you that already love the film, I'm happy you've gotten a more definitive version to enjoy. Not guilty.
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