Amid the flurry of fantasy adaptations that followed The Lord of the Rings, it always surprised me that no one managed a new version of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. It may have been script problems or the rapid realization that bombing in this genre could sink your studio. Or maybe, just maybe, they knew that they couldn’t top the 1982 animated adaptation from Rankin Bass. The studio cut its teeth on stop-motion holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as delivering an admirable version of The Hobbit (and much less admirable version of The Return of the King) in traditional animated form. The Last Unicorn probably stands as their high point, an outstanding piece of storytelling that adapts the studio’s ethos without losing the essence of Beagle’s book.
It’s a surprisingly melancholy tale, full of the sad heartbreaks of life as much as the wonder and amazement of fantasy. Though aimed at children, it speaks more profoundly to adults who watch the magic slowly seep out their existence and look back with longing at their long-ago belief that things could be different. Unicorns, with their emphasis on purity and virginity, make a powerful tool for charting that painful path we all take. As the story opens, the evil King Haggard (voiced by Christopher Lee) holds them all in the sea – driven there by his Red Bull, and now trapped in the foam of the waves. Haggard himself can watch them, but he saves the vision only for himself, while his well-meaning son (voiced by Jeff Bridges) engages in empty heroics against foes who no longer matter.
That’s the world that the titular unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow) must enter. She alone remained untouched by Haggard’s depredations and, when she learns that she may be the last of her kind, sets out to learn what’s become of them. She finds a pair of humans to help: a humbug wizard named Schmendrick (voiced by Alan Arkin) and a middle-aged cook named Molly (voiced by Tammy Grimes) who lost her youth waiting for such a creature to come along.
Magic greatly concerns Beagle (who wrote the screenplay in addition to the novel). The film speaks to its power and danger, as well as the way it can destroy the very innocence that engenders it. Haggard is not so different from Molly or Schmedrick. He loves unicorns so much that that he wants to keep all of them for himself; magic allows him to do it. Schmedrick taps into the same power to save the unicorn, only to nullify her own abilities in the process. Even seemingly normal humans like Mommy Fortuna (voiced by Angela Landsury) find ways to enact their own form of magic, thanks to their perverse understanding of what it means to be immortal.
The theme becomes a push and a pull between childhood and adulthood: learning the things we need to know and losing a part of ourselves in the process. The Last Unicorn understands the tragedy of that journey, but also the wisdom and strength that we gain from it. Beagle’s deft script delivers it in style, as well as making the more overt storytelling elements function as a marvelous postmodern fairy tale. The narrative never moves in quite the direction we expect, pulling clever surprises out of its hat and constantly evading the easy stereotype. Rankin Bass remained committed to G-rated entertainment – the few scenes of overt violence are implied rather than stated, and even the darkest moments are still appropriate for the kiddies. They also add a fistful of songs into the mix (as per their modus operandi), which range from the memorable to the disposable but never run against the movie’s melancholy spirit.
The high-profile cast it assembled is especially notable: arriving at a time when voice-over animation was considered too low-brow for big stars. In addition, the Japanese studio Topcraft did a great deal of the animation, and it’s no surprise that most of the animators left to form Studio Ghibli under Hayao Miyazaki. The beautiful images wouldn’t work without a strong thematic undercurrent, however, which The Last Unicorn possesses in spades. We don’t see stories like this anymore. In point of fact, we never did… which makes this movie all the more wonderful.