The Last Unicorn (1982)

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:

And 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.

Ugh. Yeah. Probably. Some day.

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.

“Well because carbon emissions are causing the climate to…”
“Dang it Phil, stop politicizing the hunt.”

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.

“Bye bye guys! Come again soon! Wait…WHAT DID YOU SAY?”

 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.

Ohhhhhhh. I get it.

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.

Sorry, no. That snake is not a prisoner. That is just a lazy 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.

BAAAAAAAAAAAAAM!

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.

“You know? The kind of immortality where you’re dead?”

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.

O Fortuna! Tastes like tuna!

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.

“Because I’m a sociopath. It’s great!”

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…

I showed this movie to my DAUGHTER you perverts!

So yeah, the tree is now alive, and DTF what’s more. Schmendrick laments “I’m engaged to a Douglass Fir!”.

“Looks more like a Tit Willow to me! Hi yo!”

“Tit Willow is bird, not tree. You are idiot.”

“Oh, you’re just pissy because I didn’t use you in the Soviet propaganda review.”

“It was my moment!”

The unicorn arrives and turns the tree back to normal and they just walk off sheepishly without saying anything.

“Uh…you know I didn’t mean to make the tree…”
“Hey man, I’m just walking through the forest. Nothing to do with me.”

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!”

“Bitch, I don’t know you.”

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.

This show got weird, and not in a fun way.

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!!! 

“You rang, Mouse?”

“But I thought you were dead!”

“Me, die? Ridiculous! I simply faked my death, and now I travel the world with David Bowie, solving mysteries and punching Nazis.”

“I’m still alive too, and sexier than ever!”

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.

“Release the hounds.”

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.

He’s an outsider! He’ll make magic great again!

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?

“Nah. I believe the best revenge is living well. You’ll never see me again.”

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…

“Only if she a freak.”

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”.

“Just so we’re all crystal clear, I am going to fuck that horse.”

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.

Ahab says “I don’t care who you are, here’s to your dream”.

The unicorns surge out of the ocean, causing Haggard’s castle to crumble to pieces and Haggard himself to plunge into the sea.

“LAZY BASTARD KOOKABURRAS!”

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.

“My children are swans now? Oy!”

***

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.

Scoring

Animation: 13/20

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.

Leads: 07/20

Gravity Falls has ruined unicorns for me.

Villain: 16/20

 

Supporting Characters: 14/20

In true Disney Princess fashion, the supporting characters are far more interesting than the lead.

Music: 07/20

As singers, Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges are very good actors.

FINAL SCORE: 57%

NEXT UPDATE: 26 October 2017

NEXT TIME:

33 comments

  1. I too did not see this movie until adulthood. However, I watched it after I took a sci-fi and fantasy literature class wherein we read and parsed and dissected “The Last Unicorn” almost to death. I say “almost” because all that analysis couldn’t kill the quirky charm of the novel. (Captain Cully inviting Schmendrick to “sit down, have a taco” kills me every time. As does the butterfly calling the unicorn a fish monger.) And you’re absolutely right, one of the main themes of the book is reality vs fantasy.

    The only decent song (imho) in the movie is the first one. “Now That I’m a Woman” can go jump off a cliff with the lazy bastard kookaburras. I’d toss the Equestria Girls in after them but . . . darn it, I love Sunset Shimmer and her arc. :\

    Skipping merrily over any segue . . . Mouse. You missed a perfect follow-up joke, after Comrade Crow calls you an idiot for calling a tree a tit willow when a tit willow is a bird. Did you not see the harpy?! THERE’S your tit willow! (Or a “not-blue-footed booby.” Either way.)

  2. I only watched this movie a while ago. I enjoyed it. I really like the supporting cast. It’s really nice to have a female character be part of an adventure that ain’t a “young maid”. Older females seem to be reduced to just being a parent and completely out of the picture for most of the movie. That was nice.
    How are you planning to do the Avatar review? Is it just gonna be a few episodes or the show as a whole?

  3. Been waiting for this one! Thank you, oh paragon of the taxonomic family Muridae!

    Yeah, as I suspected, this is one you really need to grow up with for it to leave its mark. I DID grow up with it, and it both terrified and fascinated me (my most commonly watched animated films were Dumbo and Robin Hood for comparison, not exactly heavy material). Very dark, and with a lot of themes and subtext that I didn’t get but could sense the significance of.

    I credit this one for getting me into fantasy, since as you mentioned in your Lord of the Rings review, we really had bupkis representing that genre at the time, and you had to take what you could get. If it wasn’t for this movie, I never would have bought that D&D set when I was 10, or checked out that Tolkien guy.

    As an adult, I still love it, but I’m wise to its flaws. Yeah, the animation is stiff, only the first two songs are any good, and it doesn’t know if it’s for children or adults. But GODDAMN, is Christopher Lee magnificent in this. To this day he’s my favorite actor, and TLU is why. The scene where he confronts the unicorn and explains his whole deal has always stuck with me; cartoon villains were supposed to be mustache twirling hams who are bad just because, not broken people in desperate need of antidepressants and a hug. Wouldn’t be surprised if Lee is responsible for that whole scene, he was a big fan of the book and apparently showed up with a copy he had marked full of parts that HAD to stay in, or he would walk.

    Oh yeah, the book. It’s amazing. Has all the strengths of the movie, and none of the flaws. The theme of how well reality stacks up against fantasy is even stronger, the story is more complex, and the emotions hit much harder. Funnier too, the film could never fully decide if it was satire or not. Highly recommended. IDW also did a graphic novel adaptation that is closer to the book and has beautiful artwork.

  4. Oooooh, Avatar: The Last Airbender is next? Yes!!!!! I can’t wait for you to talk about it!

    I admit that I never watched the series when it first aired. Never knew why, despite hearing very good things about it. But earlier this year, when I was thinking of shows to watch in my spare time at work, I thought of Avatar and figured “Why not? Now’s as good a time as any”. And I friggin LOVED it! Each time I finished an episode, I was eager to see the next. I do wish I had watched it while it was first airing on TV, but hey, better late than never, I suppose.

    I wonder which episodes in particular you’ll be talking about, as you’re obviously never going to go through every single episode. It wouldn’t happen to be The Great Divide, now would it???????

    1. I downed the first two seasons almost religiously (except “Appa’s Lost Days”, which I missed for some reason… maybe an ill-timed family outing?), but could never arse myself to finish the third. For one thing, I’ve been heartily spoiled on the grand finale’s resolution, and a good contingent of people have called it the biggest Deus Ex Machine they’ve seen in their lives…

  5. Never seen this movie, but I might in the future.
    Also, judging from that Equestria Girls remark you made, I’m gonna guess your feelings toward Friendship is Magic are like your feelings on this movie? (I like the show, but I’ll admit that the Equestria Girls movies aren’t the best the show has to offer.)

      1. @Nat: It’s a well-known fact that it is physically impossible for a non-Disney movie to be rated PG. Weirdest thing.

  6. AVATAAAAAAAAAR NEXT F*CK YEAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!! Also this movie no joke bored the sh*t out of me when I first saw it as a kid. It was midnight at my grandma’s house and we forgot to turn off the TV.

  7. I wish I liked Equestria Girls more than I did. I’ve made the attempt – seen the four movies and the first round of shorts, but not bothered with any of the later ones or that Movie Magic thing or whatever it was called. I like Sunset Shimmer, I like some of the jokes and some of the music (particularly in the second and third movies), but the second one is the only one I would call better than, “Meh, that was 90 minutes,” and even then I don’t love it.

    1. Granted part of why I’ve not watched the Movie Magic stuff is knowing it comes down to Starlight saving the day and while the character definitely has her moments, she’s kind of strangling the life out of the show for me.

  8. The tree scene and the horrible now that I’m a Woman scene are the two things I hated in the movie growing up with it. I can totally see having not seen it as a kid being a reason why you’re meh about it, though, but since I saw it as a kid I always get such nostalgia when I hear the title theme sung by America. The rest of teh songs in the movie are meh to me.

    I feel like I need to rewatch the movie now and see how it stacks up. Also really want to read the book and see the differences. Great review!

  9. Oh, it has to be around in Ireland…I remember it being around in Germany. Maybe you just missed it age-wise? The movie got overshadowed pretty fast by A Land before Time.

    Anyway, I actually didn’t like it as a child…mostly because the Harpy was too damn creepy for my taste, and I hated the scene with the tree an the red Bull and Hagard terrified me, and not in a good way. The only thing I did like was the title music (honestly, how did you manage to NOT mention it in the review? I’m alive…..I’m aaaaliiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!), and the scene when all the unicorns came from the water.

    When I rewatched it as an adult I actually appreciated it way more, mostly because I actually understood what it is about. I didn’t really get Molly’s speech beforehand, I didn’t understand the Meta commentary about fantasy tropes, I just missed out on so many themes.

    It is not really a beautiful movie. It doesn’t really have the best story or even the best characters. But it is a movie which makes you think, and that is damned rare in an animated movie not made by one of the big studious.

  10. ah David Bowie. Remember when he died and people thought that was going to be the bad part of 2016. Good times.

    Also Fuck Yes Avatar.

  11. My dear Mouse, I must say that this splendid review contains only two glaring faults that completely failed to ruin my enjoyment of it yet still nag at me:-

    1-One is perpetually disappointed that Sir Christopher Lee is so seldom referred to by name and honorific, since I always hears that deep, thrilling and intimidatingly-masterful voice ring around the theatre of the mind’s eye whenever I see it (which enunciation gratifies both my inner fanboy and incipient snobbery).

    2-We are informed Sir Christopher Lee has defied the grave once again, yet I see not one single allusion to his earliest signature role: Mouse, I am not angry only saddened to see you reject such a Perfect opportunity for a gag.

    Nevertheless congratulations on another fine review – and do keep an eye on Comrade Crow, for that recent Soviet Propaganda clip and an upcoming film called THE DEATH OF STALIN might give that Marxist-Leninist Corvid IDEAS.

  12. Saw this in the theater when it was new and I was twelve (one of those, “go to the movies and get out of our hair” things). I can remember the theater, I can remember the exact plex, so I guess it stayed with me. VERY strange to encounter this kind of story before you’ve really seen a solid version of what’s being subverted (VHS was JUST coming in, fantasy was a RARE thing). I was frustrated, mystified and drawn in (and I wouldn’t have known the cast for anything at that age, they just sounded like real people, not Hanna Barbara’s stock company).

    I think what kept this cult is that this sort of a Disney tale, with the kid parts taken out. Kids can follow it (I didn’t have an issue with following the plot), but all the fears and regrets are ADULT fears and regrets. 12 year-old-me didn’t really get mama’s “legacy” spin, I could relate to the king a bit.

    BTW, proto-Ghibli also did a lot of work on “The Hobbit” and some other TV specials by RB.

  13. I also didn’t see this movie growing up. When I first watched it a couple of years ago, I found it pretty meh. And goodness, what bad animation.

    At least you’re doing Avatar next time. I predict you will make at least one joke about blue aliens in the review.

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