ITC/Rankin-Bass (1982), Lionsgate (February 6, 2007), single disc, 93 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1/2.0, Rated G, Retail: $19.98
A sole unicorn goes on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of the unicorns, meeting unlikely companions along the way. Her journey will see her transformed, and she will need to make a choice between new love and the destiny of her kind.
The Sweatbox Review:
Peter S. Beagle’s 1968 novel The Last Unicorn was already considered something of a classic when ITC and Rankin-Bass obtained the rights to create an animated film. Beagle had misgivings about the animation being handled by Rankin-Bass, but since the release of the film in 1982, the popularity of his story has only grown. The film, though not animated up to Disney standards, became quite beloved in its own right, and has helped to steer more people towards the original, now certainly classic, book.
Deep in a magical forest, where the leaves never fall, a unicorn enjoys her carefree life. Her peacefulness is disturbed when a hunter describes her as being the very last of the unicorns. This comes as a distressing shock, and she begins to seek answers. Conveniently, a silly singing butterfly tells her a cryptic story of how the unicorns were driven off by a Red Bull that pushed them to the ends of the Earth, never to be seen again. Having heard this, the unicorn then sets off on a quest to find the rest of her kind, a journey that will take several twists and turns as she encounters a number of individuals that will either help or hinder her. It seems to be the typical quest type of story, but it does contain a few lovely twists.
The first person to affect her is Mommy Fortuna, a witch with a travelling carnival. The witch kidnaps the unicorn while she sleeps, so that the unicorn awakens in a cage. She is one of two truly magical creatures in a carnival that is otherwise fraudulently billed as containing a menagerie of mystical beasts. Though Mommy Fortuna is delighted to have a real unicorn, most people cannot see a unicorn for what it truly is, so Mommy Fortuna casts a spell to give her a fake horn. One other person, though, sees through the deception. Schmendrick, a bumbling magician, travels with Mommy Fortuna but does not share her cavalier attitude about caging magical beings. He assists the unicorn to escape, and joins her on her mission to find the other unicorns.
Their journey leads them to encounter a band of thieves, where they add another to their party, a lady named Molly Grue. Molly holds another clue to the mystery of the missing unicorns, as she is aware that the Red Bull is held by a wicked king named Haggard. This means that the trio must travel to King Haggard’s castle, not a close distance away. When they eventually approach the castle, the unicorn is chased by the Red Bull, leading Schmendrick to transform the unicorn into a young woman in order to save her. While the unicorn is initially distraught at her transformation into the Lady Almathea, she must stay in that form as she and the others go to meet the king. The old king allows them to stay at his castle, and they meet his son, Prince Lir. Though Lir is noble, he poses a different kind of threat since Lady Almathea begins to fall in love with him. This love ironically puts the her original mission at risk, since she begins to forget her true heritage as a unicorn. The conflict then shifts from the trio’s mission against the king to whether or not the unicorn will be able maintain her course and rediscover the rest of her kind.
This is a wonderful story, and I had no true issues with the script. After all, it was adapted from the novel by Beagle himself. The problems with the film lie mainly with the design and animation, though these issues have not prevented the film from becoming beloved by many.
I have to say that I quite enjoyed the backgrounds, the ones in the early part of the film in particular being very reminiscent of the work of Mary Blair, lending at least that aspect of the film a 1950s Disney look. The character designs, however, are anything but Disney-like. Of course, I wouldn’t want the film simply aping Disney’s style, but I have never cared for the look of the Rankin-Bass cel-animated characters in their various films. The designs here are similar to the bulbous ones seen in their Tolkien adaptations, which for me is not a good thing. That big-nosed, small-mouthed, pointy-chinned look just doesn’t appeal to me. And when the animation is as lacking as it is in this movie, it makes an even bigger difference. The animation was actually farmed out to Topcraft in Japan, a studio that has brought along many talented artists, but the low budget dooms them here. It’s almost painful at times to hear the expressiveness of the voice actors being oh-so-much more animated than the drawings. As someone like Christopher Lee bellows a line with great passion, it is just so sad to see the expression on the character barely change, and the body of the character remain so still.. The exception to the character design problem, fortunately, is the unicorn herself. I thought that she looked entirely exquisite.
The film is far from a total loss, and indeed much of the film is enchanting. A bigger budget would have done wonders, but as the film stands it still lacks the razzle-dazzle of today’s features. What it has in spades, though, is a worthwhile story and a lack of anything gratingly neo-hip that makes so many of today’s features crass in comparison. For that reason alone, I would recommend giving The Last Unicorn a try.
Is This Thing Loaded?
The opening previews include those for Happily N’Ever After, The Doodlebops, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. One can find these also in the extras menu under Trailer Gallery, as well as the Original Trailer for The Last Unicorn itself, presented in a grainy 4:3 transfer.
The Tail Of The Last Unicorn (8:30) is a series of interview segments with Beagle, who provides valuable commentary on his work. This featurette delves into the backgrounds and themes of the story, and is presented in anamorphic 16:9 video. A bit better lighting for Mr. Beagle would have been good, though.
A trivia game called Escape The Red Bull follows, and then there is Schmendrick’s Magical Gallery, which has a handful of stills, book covers, and paintings. A group of narrated audio segments rounds out the disc, entitled About Peter S. Beagle.
The keepcase comes with no insert, though it does have a shiny slip sleeve that duplicates the disc’s cover.
Ink And Paint:
This print has been remastered, but that cannot do away with the imperfections of the source. The animation studio needed to clean its cels or camera better, because there are smudges all over the place, most noticeable over the primarily white unicorn. The transfer is also a bit soft at times, though overall it looks fine, with no obvious digital artifacts. The best news is that the transfer is in the 16:9 ratio, approximately reproducing the original aspect ratio, whereas the previous Region 1 release was a Pan & Scan job. (Actually, this release’s transfer keeps a smidge of black at the top and bottom, so it probably is closer to the intended 1.85:1.) On the other hand, this transfer was originally made for the PAL format in Europe, meaning that there is a 4% speed-up. For those who may be bothered by this, I would say that this is at least better than going for the Pan & Scan version, and certainly worth the compromise, given that we won’t likely be seeing another edition of this movie for some time.
Soundtrack options are there for Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1. One can be skeptical of 5.1 re-mixes, but this 5.1 mix does actually manage to bring the rear speakers alive at opportune times— often enough, at least, to make it the track most will prefer. For those wanting something closer to the original track, stick with the 2.0. There are subtitles in English and Spanish.
And now, some comments on the voice cast. The cast looks great on paper, but only a few of them actually fit their roles. Mia Farrow, sounding somewhat ethereal, does very elegant work as the mystical unicorn and was well cast. In a much different role, Christopher Lee is great as the king; he brings the goods, giving his role heft and menace. After that… well, that’s another story. Jeff Bridges’ voice does not seem at all like Lir, and Alan Arkin’s off-tempo delivery for Schmendrick is simply not right.
Songs by America round things out on the audio side, and the best that can be said is that they fit within the story just fine, even if no true classics came out of the soundtrack.
Neither the movie nor the disc is a home run, but each has its merits. The not-so-stellar animation is nonetheless adequate most of the time, though it fails to bring across the emotional resonance needed. The voice cast is a mixed bag, but the words they speak are well-scripted. It is the story that is the real star of this film, and on that basis I recommend seeing it. The DVD limps its way to respectability, bringing a widescreen transfer but with a PAL speed-up. The extras are nice, though far from being truly impressive. Fans of the film will enjoy the disc, naturally, but those who need to be converted may go find themselves going either way.
It is noteworthy that Peter S. Beagle is currently in dispute, but apparently negotiating, with ITC in the matter of a monetary grievance. Those who wish to read more, and would like to support Mr. Beagle by purchasing special copies of this DVD, are encouraged to visit Conlan Press.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?