Judge Roman Martel is thankful this adventure is not accompanied by '70s lite rock.
Can nostalgia save The Last Unicorn?
Rankin-Bass is best known for their stop motion holiday specials, but around the late '70s they turned their attention to traditional animated fantasy fare. This brought us The Hobbit, The Return of the King, The Flight of Dragons, and this little movie, which actually received a theatrical release in 1982.
Based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the screenplay, The Last Unicorn follows the quest of the titular character, voiced by Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby), as she leaves the confines of her forest in search of the other unicorns that used to populate the world. A spazztastic butterfly tells her the Red Bull drove all the unicorns to the ends of the earth. So the unicorn begins her quest. Along the way, she meets the bumbling magician Schemndrick (Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine), and Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes, Can't Stop the Music) a grumpy cook with a heart of gold.
After several adventures involving a traveling circus run by Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote) and band of cutthroats lead by Captain Cully (Keenan Wynn, Herbie Rides Again), the group encounters the Red Bull. In an effort to save the unicorn, Schemndrick turns her into a human. Unfortunately, this will cause her to slowly lose her memories of her former life, and worse cause her to become mortal.
They arrive in the land of King Haggard (Christopher Lee, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones) and his son Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski), with the unicorn going by the name of Lady Amalthea. King Haggard is the master of the Red Bull, and hints he knows the fate of the unicorns. Will our heros be able to find out his secrets, or will Prince Lir who has fallen hard for Amalthea draw the last unicorn away from her quest?
Rankin-Bass' animation has long had a distinctive look, and The Last Unicorn makes the most of it. There are some great moments, and I love the way the Red Bull and the unicorn herself are animated. There is a dreamlike quality to certain scenes, specifically near the end at Haggard's castle. But the character design is going to rub some viewers the wrong way. In the quest to give everyone a distinctive look, you end up with a lot of lumpy, wrinkly, and bizarre looking characters.
The songs are going to be a deal breaker for some people; mellow at best, and downright depressing at worst. Nothing up-tempo to be found here. In a way, it fits with the melancholy theme and feel of The Last Unicorn, but around the half way mark, you just want to hear something that'll make you smile.
There are a lot of talented folks providing voices here. Christopher Lee and Angela Lansbury nearly steal the show with their roles. Alan Arkin makes Schmendrick a likable fellow. Tammy Grimes is a bit shrill and irritating as Molly, but it fits the character. Mia Farrow's performance is fine but, sometimes she seems wrong for the character. Then there was this comment my wife made from the other room while I was watching, "Wow…Who's only there for the paycheck?" Yeah, that was Jeff Bridges. He sounds bored or mellow…or both.
The Last Unicorn is a movie of extremes, pulling you into the story one moment, and then doing something to pull you right back out. You are relieved from the melancholy of the story and the songs with a few humorous characters, like the butterfly and the laughing skeleton, but these scenes overstay their welcome going from amusing to annoying. The idea of having a harpy or a talking female tree are interesting, but the design gives these characters huge pendulous breasts that are going to offend some parents. The whole film is like this, never getting its footing nor managing to be the classic it could have been.
But nostalgia provides a coat of paint for lots of films, and this is one of them. The Last Unicorn tried to do something different, and succeeded. It's not perfect, but it has a good story, some interesting characters, and a unique look. The slow pace is a problem, but at the same time it makes everythign more dreamlike. I'm not sure if kids are going to enjoy the film, but fans of fantasy should check it out.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray is probably the best way to view it. The Last Unicorn is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The high def transfer is decent, if a bit soft. This is typical of the era, and probably the best it's looked in a long time. Fans of the film will also be happy to know the Blu-ray contains two audio tracks; one with the mild profanity removed for the 25th Anniversary, as well as the original 1982 theatrical track, both in a robust 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format.
For extras, there's a lot to sift through. An audio commentary by writer Peter S. Beagle and publisher Connor Cochran provides a great deal of information about the film and the book, but there is some overlap with the two accompanying featurettes. The first, "Immortal Characters," covers the evolution of the story from book to film, loaded with interviews with Beagle, producer Jules Bass, and even Christopher Lee. Running only 15 minutes, they could have gone into more detail on the animation, but it's still informative. The second featurette, "The Tail of the Last Unicorn," is a bit odd, featuring Beagle reminiscing about writing the book, telling the story, and offering a few anecdotes. There are also three different image galleries, including some really impressive art submitted for a 2010 fan contest, and one focusing on Beagle and his books (this one offers narration). Finally, we get "Schmendrick's Magical Gallery," which provides a wide range of images, storyboards, and stills from the film; plus a vintage trailer.
This package also contains the standard DVD version of the film, complete with the soundtrack and a few of the aforementioned extras, but not the whole package. The unique addition is the interactive "Escape the Red Bull" game. It's likely this is just the 25th Anniversary DVD released back in 2007.
The Last Unicorn is definitely a product of its time. Fond memories are going to help fans look past its faults, but new viewers are going to have a tougher go. In the end, Nostalgia and heart keeps this unicorn from guilt.
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