The Last Unicorn

Director: Arthur Rankin Jr., Jules Bass             
Cast: Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow

When Peter S. Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn was first optioned to be made into a movie, the plan was to make it into a live-action movie. I'm glad those plans were never brought to fruition, because I simply can't imagine this movie working in live-action, even if the producers back then had access to present-day computer generated special effects. There are some stories that are too fantastic or too imaginative to be filmed in a live-action environment. It somehow makes fantasy look fake, instead of "real". With traditional cel animation, you can make the audience suspend its reality, make a world unlike real life, and what would be silly in real life become believable. The Last Unicorn is an animated movie that takes this technique to make one of the best fantasy movies hiding out there. It's a well written story full of everything you'd want in a fantasy movie - action, magic, romance, humor, some impressive visuals, and a wonderful score that includes some great songs. It has slowly and quietly built an appreciative audience throughout the years since its release, but I am reviewing it because I know there are many people out there who would like it, but have not even heard of it.

In an unnamed, medieval land, a lone unicorn (voiced by Marrow) stays guard over a small forest. One day, two human hunters briefly enter the forest, and she overhears that she is supposedly the last unicorn in the world. Denying this news greatly in her mind, she asks a passing butterfly (Robert Klein) for if it's true, but he only gives cryptic clues that do not ease her mind. She soon reluctantly leaves the protection of the forest to see if she can find what happened, and to find more of her kind. Along her journey, she meets Schmendrick (Arkin), a kind-hearted but inept magician, and Molly (Tammy Grimes), an older and disillusioned woman resigned to an unsatisfying life. Together, the three travel to the the kingdom of King Haggard, where it is rumored that he is behind the disappearance of the unicorns.

These and other characters in the movie are one of the ways the movie differentiates itself from a typical Disney animated feature. True, in the beginning there is the butterfly character, an annoying little creature speaking various anachronisms that could be taken straight out of a modern Disney feature. Fortunately, he is gone from the movie after several minutes, and does not appear again. Watching the movie for the third time for this review, I saw that not only do the other characters have imperfections, there's an undercurrent of loneliness in them. It's implied that Schmendrick's ineptness has resulted in him being scorned by the magic community, Molly hates herself for what she has become, and if you examine the unicorn's dialogue and actions closely, some slightly selfish behavior can be found. These negative traits actually make the characters more sympathetic, because we can identify with such aspects, and they make these ink and paint characters seem real.

Even the adversary found later in the movie - King Haggard (Christopher Lee) - can be identified with. Instead of being like a typical booming and bombastic Disney villain, he comes across more as a tragic figure than someone evil. I actually felt more pity for this character than any feeling related to hatred. This is mainly due to the fact that he has a chance to say what he did, and why. That brings up another reason why the characters in The Last Unicorn are so interesting; the movie gives them the opportunity to talk to each other, not afraid to let out their feelings. When Molly first meets the unicorn, she is moved to tears - then suddenly starts yelling, "Where were you when I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you come to me now - when I'm this!...It would be the last unicorn that came to Molly Grue!" I'm glad Beagle himself was given the opportunity to write the screenplay (he was reportedly satisfied with the end results), because even though I haven't read the book, it's clear that a lot of the book's reported magic was retained.

Certainly, a lot of the movie's magic comes from its music score, and its songs. Now, I know what you are feeling - I, too, am sick of those unnecessary and loud song-and-dance numbers in Disney animated features. In this case, however, there are only two instances where characters sing (and no dancing or Broadway-like numbers.) The first time ("Now I Am A Woman"), the song itself is pretty bad, but at least the tone of the number isn't strident. The second number ("Anyway, I Love You"), with Jeff Bridges singing with Farrow (or, to probably be more exact, the singing voice representing her) is very well done. Bridges singing voice is a little shaky, but it actually gives the song a kind of sincerity, helping the song to generate the crescendo and haunting feel the whole sequence needs. The other songs in the movie (like the other two, written by Jimmy Webb), are played in the background to generate mood, and are performed by the group America. America may be one of the most despised groups of the '70s, but to tell the truth, I can't imagine any other group playing and singing these particular songs this well. Haunting and dreamy, these songs stick in your head long after the movie is over; it's unfortunate the soundtrack is expensive as well as hard to get a hold of.

The animation, on the other hand, is a little uneven. Of course, one has to realize that this movie was made before computers were able to assist animators into polishing their work. The animators of The Last Unicorn didn't draw as many frames per second as Disney did during this period, though it's certainly much better than the animation on TV at the time. There are a few sequences, such as the Red Bull's appearances, have been given more care, sometimes looking almost as if they were animated "on ones" (a new movement in every frame.) Certainly, the background artwork is definitely above average, and one aspect of the animation draftsmanship is an improvement over Disney - there is none of that "sketchy" look (caused by Xeroxing the pencil sketches of the animators) prevalent in Disney animation from 101 Dalmatians to the mid 80s or so.  The characters are drawn with solid lines and with a fair amount of detail, though their coloring for the most part may have too many dark colors. (I was also a little troubled by Schmendrick's impossibly big nose.) It's a little odd that the design of the characters are drawn in two different styles - the human characters are drawn in a style that can fit in the traditional Rankin/Bass style, but the unicorn and the Red Bull are clearly straight out of anime. This can be partially explained by the fact Rankin/Bass shipped this movie to be animated in Japan, though the credits make clear the character designers were American. Odd as this culture mix may sound, the two styles do still manage to fit together.

Even if the quality of the animation was inferior to what it is now, I would still enjoy this movie very much. That's because an animated movie really works not really from its level of animation (though it helps), but by its story. This particular story grabs you immediately, giving at the start barely enough of what we need to know, mixed with mystery and wonder. I wanted to know what the answer was to the mystery, and how these fully fleshed out characters would do when confronted these same questions and puzzlements. The various subplots along the journey might stop the story momentarily, but I was never bored, for there was always something going on in these subplots that either developed the characters or gave us a better idea of this mythical world. The main story itself is original, and unlike any other fantasy I've read or watched. The movie, though rated G, may actually be a little too sophisticated for some children. Some of the vocabulary and situations may go over the heads of the young, and some mild profanities and two scenes of near nudity may not please parents. Also, a few unsettling deaths and the Red Bull may frighten the more tender of children. However, I remember watching this movie when I was young, and loving it, thinking it as a great kids' film. Seeing it again as an adult, I now see it in a different light - I think it's one of the best fairy tales for adults ever made.

UPDATE: Jonah Falcon sent this along:

"I saw The Last Unicorn theatrically, and on HBO, and "Now That I'm A Woman" was not sung (except in the reprise). It was removed because, well, Mia Farrow is a horrible singer. The effect was actually stronger, because when she moves into the Unicorn Mosiac room, she isn't singing, but silent and looks like she's having a slight rush of memory - she does say, "I must go to HIM."

"If you get the German soundtrack CD of The Last Unicorn - they replace Mia Farrow with a better singer, and it sounds great."

Jonah subsequently provided me with a MP3 of the track, and I have to agree that it sounds a heck of a lot better. He also sent also this extra information:

"The story behind it is that during the original cut of The Last Unicorn, they realized that Mia Farrow didn't have the vocal ability to sing (Jeff Bridges did - he had an accomplished musical theater background). They decided to cut Mia Farrow singing "Now That I'm A Woman" (but still showed her, just not singing), and redubbed her singing in the duet with Bridges in "All I Have To Say".

"ITC wanted to make the movie as long as possible, so they restored every cut scene, including Mia Farrow's singing! That explains why SHE sings "Now That I'm A Woman", but doesn't sing during the duet."

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Check for availability of the soundtrack (CD)
Check for availability of Peter S. Beagle's original novel "The Last Unicorn"
Check Amazon for book "The Enchanted World Of Rankin/Bass"

Also: Barefoot Gen, Tweety's High-Flying Adventure, Hearts & Armour