Reviews: The Last Unicorn

A wonderful piece of animated film

Rankin-Bass's cinematic efforts are less well known than their holiday specials, but are not by any means less good. Among them are the Hans Christian Andersen pseudo-biography The Daydreamer, the fun monster movie tribute Mad Monster Party, and one of the finest animated films anywhere... The Last Unicorn.

The film was based, of course, on Peter S. Beagle's novel, and they made the smart move of getting him to write the screenplay. The film is as faithful to the story as you can get, preserving as much of it as possible - and this truly works in its favor. Many of the novel's philosophical and otherwise deep bits are translated to film in a way that could never be done now.

It is fortunate that the film was made in a time period (the 70s and early 80s) where animated film was truly allowed to experiment, with things like this being the result. Had it been made a decade later it would have turned out like any other Disney ripoff film made then, with none of what makes it good; and had it been made now... the thought makes my blood run cold.

But back to the film... the characterization and depth in the film is well done, with none of the main characters ever feeling like a stereotype. In King Haggard we have one of the most sympathetic, well-written villains in animated film - his actions aren't justified, but he is a pitiable character.

The film also features ideas not often found in animated films - ideas on mortality, happiness, heroism, loss, all of which are moving, and help to keep the movie serious. The film is secure enough in its seriousness to give us some humor as well, with the alcoholic skeleton and the... well... tree with giant boobs, both of which are pretty funny, I admit.

The voice cast is excellent, with special praise going to Christopher Lee as King Haggard, who did so well he reprised the role in the German dub. Of course, nobody else is a slouch; the film features an all-star cast (Alan Arkin! Mia Farrow! Tammy Grimes! Angela Lansbury!)

The music is well-done, with the theme song being a truly beautiful piece, and the rest of the songs... well, they're fine. Much has been written about Mia Farrow's terrible singing during "Now That I'm a Woman," but I honestly don't mind it.

The animation... well, it's beautiful. On the most recent DVD the thing has been remastered so well it looks like a moving painting. It was animated at Japan's Topcraft studio, later to become Studio Ghibli, and they truly gave their all for this one.

If you are interested in really, really good animated cinema, try and find a copy of this. It is truly wonderful, and I don't say that lightly...

Great ideas, iffy execution

Let me just start by saying: I didn't watch this movie as a kid and I never read the book. I only heard about a year or so ago, and being the animation junkie that I am I decided to check it out.

The concepts behind the movie, and its storyline, are both great. The working in of unicorn mythology (men not being able to recognize unicorns, unicorns coming to the aid of young virgin girls, etc.) is done very well, and it puts an interesting twist on the latter especially when they encounter Molly Grue, a middle-aged woman who is upset that she did not receive a unicorn's blessing in her youth ("Why do you come to me now, when I am this?"). Also, the unicorn being turned into a human was a nice touch, especially the way she reacts the way you'd think a normally immortal being would react to being placed in a mortal body.

However, the storyline and concepts just aren't delivered well. The first major problem is the voice acting - there just isn't a lot of effort put into the lines by any of the characters, barring King Haggard and Molly on occasion. Jeff Bridges as Lir gives a particularly emotionless performance, and unfortunately so does Mia Farrow as our main heroine, the unicorn. And while Christopher Lee gives a pretty good performance as Haggard, Haggard himself just isn't a very compelling villain. Tammy Grimes' portrayal of Molly was the only one I could consistently enjoy.

The second big problem is the animation. The art is great; the character designs (especially the unicorn) and backgrounds are gorgeous. But the Nostalgia Critic made a good point about the animation of the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials: their "stop-motion" put much more emphasis on the "stop" than the "motion." Unicorn is by the same people and suffers from much the same problem; the animation just has very poor flow, and half the time it feels like they just skipped a few frames out of laziness. In addition, the facial expressions have a bad case of Dull Surprise. I'm willing to accept technical limitations to a point, but The Secret of NIMH came out the same year, and if you haven't seen that, go ahead and watch it to see what 1982 animation could really achieve.

Overall grade: 7.4/10. It was okay for what it was, but it could have been much, much more.