Animation history is full of odd twists and turns and weird connections but one of the weirdest is that you can trace a direct line between this:
Rankin Bass is most famous for its stop motion Christmas specials but from the late sixties onwards they dabbled in feature length traditional animation. The Rankin Bass filmography is like an unfinished rollercoaster, a madcap frenzy of highs and lows before it all ends in the bloody, limb mangling, fiery catastrophe of 1999’s The King and I.
But they did produce what is, by fairly solid consensus, a true classic with 1982’s The Last Unicorn, based on Peter S. Beagle’s book of the same name. While Rankin/Bass produced the film, the grunt work was actually farmed out to a Japanese company called Topcraft who’d later be hired by Hayao Miyazaki to animate Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and the rest is history.
I get the feeling this movie was a much bigger deal in the States than it was in Ireland. I never saw it growing up, and I don’t remember anyone talking about it. But that pedigree alone was enough to make me curious.
Let’s take a look.
The movie opens with two hunters riding through a forest that bears no small resemblance to the one from Sleeping Beauty. The older hunter tells his younger companion that the forest is home to a unicorn. The younger hunter asks if that’s really true. The older hunter asks him why else the forest would be in perpetual spring.
The old hunter calls out to the unicorn “Good luck to you! For you are the last.” and the pair ride off, unaware that a unicorn (Mia Farrow, hot damn) has been watching them from a distance.
The unicorn is kinda freaked out that she might be the last unicorn (I mean, she hadn’t heard from them in a while but she just assumed they were taking a break from social media). So she decides to go on a quest to see if she really is the last unicorn.
Outside the forest, the unicorn learns that no one can see her true form and everyone just thinks she’s a regular horse. This bothers her no end, because the unicorn is racist as fuck. She gets captured by Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury, hot damn) and put on display in her travelling carnival. Mommy Fortuna is actually a witch who uses her magic to pass off regular animals as mythical creatures. In her menagerie is a “Manticore” (a clapped out lion), a “satyr” (a chimp) and “the Midgard Serpent” (a regular snake). You feel really bad for them, except the snake.
Because the regular rubes can’t see her horn, the unicorn has to wear a fake one. So now she’s a unicorn disguised as a horse disguised as a unicorn.
The only other attraction is Mommy Fortuna’s pride and joy, an actual harpy. Fortuna is very proud that she was able to capture a harpy and the unicorn tells her “No, for real, you know that thing is going to kill you, right?” but Fortuna says that she knows it will but that she will always be remembered as the one who captured a harpy, so in a way she’s immortal.
The unicorn begs Fortuna to let her go, and the harpy, saying “We’re two sides of the same magic. We’re not for you.” I actually really dig just how genre savvy everyone is about this. Everyone, including Fortuna herself, knows that sooner or later the harpy is going to break out and kill her but she refuses to get rid of it, saying “I’ll quit show-business first!”. Fortuna tells the unicorn that the other unicorns were captured by “The Red Bull of King Haggard” but that Haggard won’t get her as long as she stays with the carnival.
The unicorn befriends a carnival magician named Schmendrick (Alan Arkin, hot damn). Fortuna thinks that Schmendrick is just a fraud, but he’s actually the real deal, and so can see the unicorn for what she really is. He tries a number of spells to free her and almost kills her by shrinking the cage around her so instead he just takes the keys that he had the whole time and sets her free.
Because unicorns are all about drama, she then sets all the other animals free. Schmendrick begs her not to release the harpy while the harpy calls “Free me, we are sisters you and I!” which is weird because the Harpy is voiced by a dude, specifically Keenan Wynn, an actor whose name you don’t know but whose face you almost certainly do (cartoon voicework runs in the family, his dad Ed voiced the Mad Hatter)
The harpy attacks the unicorn but she drives it off with her horn. But then Momma Fortuna comes out and the harpy kills her and eats her.
Schmendrick tries to run but the unicorn warns him that “running attracts immortal beings” and they simply walk away. Schmendrick is guilt-ridden over the death of Momma Fortuna, but the unicorn says it was the fate she chose. Schmendrick asks her if she has any regrets and the unicorn tells him that she never feels regret.
So I suppose it’s time for me to come clean and admit that I’m not a big fan of the animation. The human characters are done in the same ridiculously detailed, border-line grotesque style as Rankin Bass’ The Hobbit. Many love that style. That’s fine. That’s their right. And we’ll have no problems as long as they stay on their side of town. But it’s next to impossible to get figures that detailed to move with any kind of fluidity and the animation of the human characters is quite janky. The unicorn is a much more elegant design and moves much more gracefully, but she’s drawn so differently to the other characters that it’s kind of jarring. Again, it kinda fits thematically, I guess, but I just can’t say I like it. I will say this though, this movie is a heck of a lot prettier when it’s standing still. The backgrounds in particular are just breathtaking.
The unicorn and Schmendrick set out to find King Haggard. Along the way, Schmendrick gets captured by Captain Cully, the off-brand Robin Hood, and his
Merry Malnourished Men. We then get a scene that I don’t quite know what to make of. Cully asks his minstrel to sing a song about him, but Cully’s girlfriend, Molly Grue, asks him to sing a song about Robin Hood instead. Cully huffs that there’s no so such thing as Robin Hood and Schmendrick suddenly casts a spell that summons the ghosts of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Ralph Malph, the whole gang. All the outlaws run after Robin Hood, including Molly Grue. Captain Cully decides that a wizard who can do neat party tricks like that will fetch a good price and ties Schmendrick to a tree and leaves him there. Schmendrick tries to escape by using his magic again which brings the tree to life and then oh my tail and whiskers…
So yeah, the tree is now alive, and DTF what’s more. Schmendrick laments “I’m engaged to a Douglass Fir!”.
The unicorn arrives and turns the tree back to normal and they just walk off sheepishly without saying anything.
In the forest they run into Molly Grue, who can see the unicorn for what she really is. Molly breaks down in angry tears, yelling at the unicorn “Where were you twenty years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you! How dare you come to me now, when I am this!”
Anyway, Molly forgives the unicorn (decent of her) and invites herself along on their quest. As they approach Haggard’s castle they’re attacked by the Red Bull who chases the unicorn. In desperation, Schmendrick tries to change the unicorn into something the Red Bull won’t bother with: a human female. Because, unicorns literally never get turned into anything else.
The Red Bull vanishes but the (former) unicorn is distraught when she realises what’s happened, crying “I can feel this body dying all around me!” and Molly Grue yells at Schmendrick and calls him and idiot and Schmendrick is all “What the FUCK do you people want from me I literally performed an actual literal miracle what even the FUCK?”
Anyway Schmendrick promises the humancorn that he’ll restore her to her true form but that she needs to stay human until they reach King Haggard’s castle and learn what happened to the rest of her kind
They finally reach the castle where they meet a young handsome prince named Lír (Jeff Bridges, hot damn) and his father King Haggard voiced by CHRISTOPHER GODDAMN LEE!!!
I knew it. This calls for a celebration. Cue the music!
Lee’s King Haggard is by far the strongest element of the entire film. He’s a fascinating villain, who does terrible things not because of greed or lust for power but because he’s cripplingly depressed and is searching for something, anything, that will bring him a flicker of happiness. Also, he’s one character where I think the movie’s overly detailed style actually really suits.
Schmendrick introduces the humancorn as “Lady Amalthea” and asks Haggard to let him join his court. Haggard says that he already has a magician who’s wise and all-powerful, but he’s never made him happy, so he’ll try an incompetent amateur and see if he does a better job instead.
Haggard summons his magician Mabruk and tells him to am-scray. Mabruk lays a cuurse on Haggard saying “You have let your doom in through the front door, but it will not depart that way!” Okay, I’ve seen enough cartoons to know how this goes. The spurned wizard is going to concoct a fiendish plan to get his revenge, right?
Months pass and the three settle into their new lives in the castle, Molly Grue working in the kitchen, Schmendrick performing tricks for Haggard and “Amalthea” staring out into the sea while contemplating her own mortality (it’s a living). Lír has fallen in love with her and keeps bringing her bits of the dead dragons he’s slain but she remains unmoved, because she’s a unicorn and not a baby owl chick. Lír asks Molly Grue what else he could be killing to show her how much he loves her and Molly suggests that maybe Amalthea is not to be won with great deeds. Or even, kinda shitty ones. Look, Lír. Sit down. Let me give you some advice. If a lady’s not giving you the time of day, you wait until she’s in estrous, wave your tail so she can smell the hormones and then show her your nest lined with dried grass, lint and sawdust. You can use some old socks too, but, y’know…
Molly tries to act as Lír’s wingman, telling Amalthea to maybe give him a chance and completely over looking the fact that maybe she’s not really ready for a relationship what with still getting use to being bipedal (fuck’s sake Molly). But Amalthea has bigger problems. She’s starting to forget who she was and why she even came to Haggard’s castle. She then sings Now That I’m a Woman.
Someone made the decision that Mia Farrow should do her own singing. Some day they will have to answer for that. In this life. Or the next.
All I can say is…
Dammit, it’s no Am I Feeling Love!
One problem I have with this movie is that the unicorn is supposed to be the main character but she’s fairly passive, right up until the point she becomes human when becomes completely passive. From here on in it’s really just Schmendrick and Molly Grue moving the plot along while Lír and Amalthea sing at each other. Badly.
One day, Haggard confronts Amalthea on the battlements and tells her that he knows that she’s actually a unicorn. He tells her how he had the Red Bull chase all of the unicorns into the sea where he could look at them always. Amalthea claims she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. At first, Haggard threatens to throw her down into the ocean but when he sees his own reflection in her eyes he realises that she has become fully human and can no longer remember being a unicorn.
Down in the cellar, the gang find a talking skull who knows the way to the Red Bull. The skull is voiced by Rene Auberjonois (hot damn) and agrees to tell them the way to the Red Bull in exchange for a sip from Schmendrick’s (empty) wine bottle, a further re-enforcement of the movie’s theme of fantasy being more powerful than reality. They follow the Skull’s directions through a clock which leads them into the Red Bull’s passage, but Haggard destroys the clock, trapping them inside.
The others finally reveal Amalthea’s true nature to Lír who answers, “I love whom I love”. Schmendrick says that that’s great and all, but that when he turns her back but Lír repeats “I love whom I love”.
Amalthea says she wants to stay as a human and be with Lír but Lír tells her that she can’t abandon her quest to save the unicorns. Suddenly, the Red Bull appears and, in order to save Amalthea, Schmendrick has to turn her back into a unicorn. Amalthea leads the bull out on to the beach away from the others. Molly Grue and Lír tell Schmendrick to use his magic again but he tells them that doesn’t have the power to save her because “That’s what heroes are for.”
Lír then rushes out in front of the bull…and gets flattened like a hedgehog. This enrages the unicorn, whose horn starts glowing and she attacks the bull, just in time for a tidal wave of unicorns to rise from the sea and wash over the bull like the world’s most magical Guinness ad.
The unicorns surge out of the ocean, causing Haggard’s castle to crumble to pieces and Haggard himself to plunge into the sea.
And the movie ends with Lír (who did not die, God bless us every one), Schmendrick and Molly Grue bidding farewell to the unicorn who returns to her forest, now the first of her species to know the meaning of regret, and love. Also, not to end the review on a downer, but if Prince Lír is supposed to be King Lír from Irish mythology, things don’t end so good for him.
I absolutely get why The Last Unicorn became such a cult classic and I think it’s largely due to timing. The eighties were a real bad time for feature length animation but particularly bad for animation aimed at girls. Disney hadn’t made a princess movie since 1959 and Little Mermaid was seven years away. Something had to fill the void, and that something was barbershop The Last Unicorn.
Having not grown up with the movie and with no nostalgia to draw on, I can’t really say I loved it. There are things I like about it, the stellar cast, some nice animation here and there and a bracing weirdness, but overall it left me cold.
If you told me this was the early rough work of the people who would go on to become possibly the greatest animation studio of them all, I’d believe. Real flashes of inspiration and beauty here but it’s still pretty rough and janky.
Gravity Falls has ruined unicorns for me.
Supporting Characters: 14/20
In true Disney Princess fashion, the supporting characters are far more interesting than the lead.
As singers, Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges are very good actors.
FINAL SCORE: 57%
NEXT UPDATE: 26 October 2017