Here’s something else from the Things That Scarred Me in Childhood Department. Keep your Disney and your Dreamworks. Screw Pixar and, apart from the teams responsible for Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series, screw Warner Brothers animation too. In my eyes, none of them are fit to lick the boots of Rankin/Bass Productions.
Originally formed in the early 1960s, the studio achieved lasting fame with a little 1964 stop-motion Christmas special/gigantic commercial for General Electric called Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer. Over the next decade, Rankin/Bass churned out Christmas scholck like clockwork, and their most famous specials (Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Frosty the Snowman) are still in syndication today. The secret to their success was outsourcing, making Rankin/Bass one of the earliest American companies to exploit the third world for their own gain.
Thankfully, at the time, “the third world” pretty much included Japan. So when Rankin/Bass began to branch out into more traditional cartoon fare it found a ready partner in future-House of Dragonball Toei Animation. This partnership produced a crop of feature-length cartoons still remembered by all the good little children of the 70s and 80s…because they scared the shit out of us.
I won’t even mention 1977’s The Hobbit, except to say that, blasphemous as it may sound to some among you, that film introduced me to Tolkien. Without it, I would not be quite the nerd I am today. I’d probably be one of those dick sci-fi fans who sneers at the Fantasy Genre and actually considers it separate from science fiction.
Instead, I only sneer when a particular Fantasy sucks. The Last Unicorn does not suck. In fact, it fucking rocks. But as with most films from my childhood, I return to find it beset by serious structural problems. Whether they sink the film or not will depend on how much you enjoy The Last Unicorn‘s ambient level of weirdness.
Like the character designs. Big noses and flowing hair are the order of the day, as if every man, woman and child in the Rankin/Bass’ generic fantasy lands were descended from the Burbon Dynasty (which, to be fair, got around town). The inconsistent mouth-movements and gratuitous use of Music Video Montage that hobbled Rankin/Bass’ Return of the King (released two years before this) also crop up, though they never managed to make themselves as annoying as all that.
Expect some heavy-handed Fantasy dialogue as well. Such is the first line we hear in the picture, delivered by a hunter (who looks like he could’ve stepped right out of Gandalf’s post-Quest dinner party that framed Return of the King) to his companion (who looks like an amateur Robin Hood impersonator…potential foreshadowing?). “I mislike the feel of these woods,” Not-Elrond says. “Creatures that live in a unicorn’s forest learn a little magic of their own in time. Mainly concerned with disappearing.” Not-Robin Hood seems as perplexed by this comment as we are, insisting unicorns are just a myth. “Then why do the leaves never fall here?” Not-Elrond counters. “Or the snow? Why is it always spring here?” Not-Robin Hood’s all like, “Whatever,” and suggests they turn around then. Not-Elrond agrees and wishes the unicorn good luck as they depart, recommending she keep a low profile. “For you are the last.”
Our Unicorn (Mia Farrow) is quite distressed to hear complete strangers dismiss her species from existence. So distressed her voice-over narration has to make a Dramatic Speech that quite stealthily explains everything we really need to know about unicorns in this universe. “We live forever…we can be hunted, trapped. We can even be killed if we leave our forests. But we do not vanish.” I love Our Unicorn’s indignation at the thought. “What do men know?” She’s so haughty and superior I’m sure some people will be utterly annoyed by her character. But this is nothing. Just wait.
Perplexed, Our Unicorn asks a passing butterfly (Robert Klein) if it knows her for what she is. Despite being insane and speaking exclusively in anachronistic show tunes, the butterfly switches to prose long enough to identify Our Unicorn correctly and tell her, “You can find the others if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints.”
Wondering just what the hell that means, half-suspected the butterfly’s a crazed idiot who doesn’t know its thorax from its proboscis, Our Equine Heroine embarks upon an epic, epic quest to find the rest of her kind and free them from whatever “the Red Bull” is. And what’s an epic quest without an epic, musical montage to help it out by compressing time? Featuring an epic folk-rock song preformed…by America. Yes, “Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man,”/”I been to the desert on a horse with no name” America, who also perform the film’s title track. This film may, in fact, have been part of America’s dramatic return to the spotlight…for all of five minutes…released just four months after the debut of their album View from the Ground. Either way, if you don’t like their songs, I finally have all the excuse I need to say, “You literally hate America, and are henceforth declared a terrorist.”
The problem with epic, epic quests (as any RPG player will tell you) is they tend to become fairly episodic fairly easily. The Last Unicorn is no exception. It feels more like the first few episodes of a TV series than a coherent movie, and certainly follows the standard, anime OVA formula: magical protagonist stumbles into shit, gains a few magical friends, meets a villain, saves the world. The film relies on the novelty of our protagonist being a unicorn to carry us through all this and keep us from zoning out.
The Last Unicorn: Episode One – The Murder She Wrote Menace begins right after the montage…which took so much out of Our Unicorn she has to lay down for the night by the side of the road. This allows her to be captured (and she just told us it could happen, too, damnit) by Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival. Fortuna (Angela “Holy crap, it’s actually her” Landsbury), being a cartoon witch, recognizes Our Unicorn on sight. Fortuna’s hunchback assistant Ruhk (Brother Theodore) mistakes Our Heroine for an ordinary horse and her “Wizard,” Schmendrick (Alan “Holy crap, it’s actually him!” Arkin) pretends not to see a unicorn in order to game Mommy Fortuna. She’s a bit of a hustler, you see, and that doesn’t sit very well with Schmendrick’s Wizardry ethics. Besides, what wizard wants to work the carny circuit for the rest of his life, anyway? A real live unicorn for a traveling companion sure might help in that regard…
Fortuna keeps her circus in the black by using relatively-pitiful magics to make her audiences perceive ordinary animals as mythological beasts. Since real manticores, dragons and unicorns are so rare, the ordinary mark can’t even tell the difference…unless a real mythological creature stares them right in the face. Yet Fortuna’s arrogance cannot allow for this possibility: “Do you really think those fools knew you without help from me?” she asks Our Unicorn. “I had to give you a horn they could see.” Like most good villains, Fortuna’s driven by hubris and the lust for prestige in the eyes of “true” witches…none of whom “would dare” to capture a unicorn…even if she weren’t the last.
Schmendrick underlines this when he rescues Our Heroine (distracting Ruhk with a Lewis Carroll riddle, which is a brilliant tactic in itself): “It is a very rare person who is taken for what he truly is.” Unfortunately, Fortuna also managed to capture a real live harpy some time back, and that harpy, Cele’no (Keenan Wynn), wants out as much as Our Equine Heroine. Freed by Schmendrick, Our Unicorn frees Cele’no so Cele’no can kill Fortuna and Ruhk, allowing Our Heroes to walk out of Episode One guilt-free. Because neglegent homicide’s still better than first degree murder, am I right, defense attorneys?
Episode Two – Attack of the Renaissance Festival Attendees finds Our Heroes wandering toward the sea, having heard from Mommy Fortuna that the Red Bull is actually, “the Red Bull of King Haggard,” who rules over “a barren country” thatways a bit. As with most generic fantasy lands, everyone’s got plenty of knowledge about everything despite the absence of libraries or a postal system. But unlike most generic fantasies, Schmendrick flatly admits, “I’ve heard too many stories to tell you the truth,” about Haggard, a phrase many self-appointed experts in this Age of Wikipedia could stand to parrot on occasion.
In any case, the action of this episode starts when Schmendrick’s kidnapped off the road by outlaws, led by Captain Cully (Keenan Wynn again). Schmendrick rescues himself in due time by conjuring up phantoms of Robin Hood to entrance the ersatz Merry Men. But since he’s so entranced with his own work, Schmendrick stands their like an asshole instead of running, allowing Captain Cully time to tie him to a tree. Schmendrick’s attempts to free himself only grant the tree sentience…and breasts. Gigantic, ballooning tree-breasts.
Have I mentioned I first found this movie at age four?
Thankfully, the Unicorn frees the inept wizard, and this cross-species Han and Luke team soon gain a Leia in the outlaw’s own Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), who recognizes Our Unicorn as well. Apparently sick of being the only girl in Captain Cully’s sausage fest, Molly leads them to King Haggard’s country…and another musical montage, leading us into Episode Three – Revenge of the Fisher King.
Here the film takes a hard left. We finally get to King Haggard’s blasted land, a Not-Mordor counterpart to the Not-Sherwood Forrest we just left. The Red Bull’s there to greet them, immediately recognizing the Unicorn (Mommy Fortuna’s looking more full of shit by the day) and attempting to drive her toward…wherever the hell he drove the rest of her species. Desperate, Schmendrick uses the one incantation in his repertoire that actually works (“Magic do as you will”) to transform Our Unicorn into a human being…loosing the Bull’s interest at once.
It’s a too bad but necessary plot contrivance. I like Mia Farrow’s performance as Our Unicorn. Her voice-over narration’s a bit muffled, like she’s speaking to us from the bottom of well, but her Unicorn dialogue is glazed with a benign haughtiness befitting an immortal forced to put up with idiotic humans. There’s no impatience to her, and none of the disdain you get from Elves or Highlanders…just a quiet superiority that’s frankly well-founded and devoid of most human emotions. “I cannot feel regret,” she tells Schmendrick as he mourns Mommy Fortuna and Ruhk’s deaths-by-Harpy. “I can feel sorrow, but it’s not the same thing.”
As a human, on the other hand, Farrow’s performance is one of the shrillest, whiniest, set-your-teeth-on-edge voice acting you’re like to hear this side of Toei’s actual anime productions. She’s also saddled with the worst song in the whole film (“Now That I’m a Woman”), and her singing voice is just as ear ache-inducing.
For better or worse, a good chunk of the film’s back half is obscured by these musical numbers. No surprise, things are a bit weird inside Castle Haggard. For one thing, Haggard’s voiced by Christopher Lee. His son, Prince Lir, is voiced by Jeff Bridges, and instantly smitten with Our Heroine’s human form, whom he knows as the Lady Amalthia. Lonely and mortal, best by mortal urges, we’re meant to give a crap about Amalthia and Lir’s burgeoning romance. In the eponymous novel upon which this film is based, writer Peter S. Beagle took the time to establish these two and their getting to know each other. Here, we’re an hour in to a ninety-minute movie, and we’ve got to kick the Third Act off but quick.
Thankfully, there’s a pirate cat among the oddities King Haggard’s collected in a desperate attempt to stay happy (and only Christopher Lee could make a line like “I will keep nothing near me that does not make me happy” both believable and sinister). Pirate Cat (Don Messick) is happy enough to play Judas after Molly Grue gives him a back scratch…but only in the most obtuse and cattiest of ways. There’s a clock downstairs, a skull that’s supposed to speak, and a secret passage to the Red Bull’s lair inside the clock, but that one sentence’s worth of information gets obscured behind a series of conflict-lengthening riddles. I love how Pirate Cat treats slowing down Our Heroes’ quest to rescue all of unicornkind as a point of personal pride, leading to his best line: “No cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.”
If there’s a theme here it’s obviously “reality vs. perception.” The film circles that dichotomy the way vultures circle roadkill, and by the end that subject’s pretty much picked over. As the Pirate Cat says, “No cat out of its first fur can ever be deceived by appearances. Unlike human beings, who seems to enjoy it.” The only tension in the Third Act comes from the thought that King Haggard might be able to see through Amalthia as easily as the Pirate Cat, and the film sabotages that as soon as Haggard and Our Heroine have their one scene together.
Our Heroine and her Prince, on the other hand, get an entire music video, and so their love blossoms through the Magic of Montage, the most unconvincing magic of all. Schmendrick makes himself useful in the meantime, solving Pirate Cat’s riddle. Our Heroes find the Red Bull’s lair, there’s some low-budget, cartoon battling, and a cameo by Rene Auberjonois (now known as Star Trek‘s Odo) as the talking skull King Haggard keeps in place of an actual alarm system.
That’s the thing about this flick: packed with talent through and through, it should be more famous than it is. Where else are ya gonna find Mia, Odo, Sarumon of Many Colors, and The Dude all in one place? Yet it’s more of a collage than a coherent fantasy universe, with few of the fantastical trappings nerds love to nerd-out about so much. More C.S. Lewis than J.R.R. Tolkien, The Last Unicorn suffers from being such a mish-mash. Sometimes (like that bit with Captain Cully) it seems to be skewering traditional fantasy tropes. Prince Lir even kills a dragon (complete with Godzilla’s voice) to try and win Amalthia’s heart…but since the animation budget’s running so low, and the film’s obviously saving money for the climax, he kills the damn thing offscreen.
Unconscionable little things like that keep The Last Unicorn from being the epic it was in prose and obviously wanted to be on film. Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin’s direction is top notch for the time, making it less than adequate by modern standards (they have a bad habit of cutting away from representations of violent acts). Peter S. Beagle’s script pulls things out of the fire by ensuring all the book’s best lines are present, including my favorite line from Schmendrick, “There are no happy endings because nothing ends.” Apparently, this was Alan Moore’s favorite as well, since he stole it outright for the end of Watchmen.
Personal bias means I’d still recommend the book over the film, but without the film I would’ve never known the book existed. Nor could I have known that this kind of story was possible. In keeping with all good fantasies, it’s the story of magic lost and found, the balance of the world restored through the heroic acts of misfits, weirdos and well-meaning idiots. With Pirate Cats, an all-star cast, and talking skulls. If that’s what you’re looking for, look no further. You’ve found your happy ending right here.
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