Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—typically “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.
In this day and age of Disney and Dreamworks keeping an incredible tight grasp on American animated films, let’s take a look at an animated classic of days gone by. When men wanted to be magicians and a Unicorn wanted to find other Unicorns. Today we’re going to look at a film from 1982. Rankin and Bass’s The Last Unicorn based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle. I hadn’t seen the film since its original release (yes, I’m that old) and was wary about whether it would hold up for an adults sensibilities. I was happily surprised. There’s a lot to like in this film.
The story follows a Unicorn who finds out she might be the last of her kind. She embarks on a quest to find out if this is true. At one point in her journey she is captured by a Carnival owner, Mommy Fortuna, and is eventually set free by Fortuna’s carnival “magician” Schmendrick. Now with a travelling companion, she and Schmendrick (fun name to say and type) have a couple more adventures, gaining a new companion Molly Grue, learning magic, and accidentally turning the Unicorn into human form (called Lady Amalthea), before they arrive at the castle of King Haggard. Haggard, many years earlier had rounded up all of the other unicorns with the help of the Red Bull and driven them into the ocean. This sets up the final act of the film with a dramatic confrontation between the Unicorn and the Red Bull.
There’s a lot of great voice acting in this film. With Alan Arkin voicing Schmendrick, Mia Farrow as the Unicorn, an incredibly young voiced Jeff Bridges as Lir – the love interest for the Unicorn, Christopher Lee as the evil Saruman-like King Haggard, and a delightful cameo from Rene Auberjonois as a talking skull.
The animation was a little off-putting to me at first since the Unicorn is very stylized with a lot of curves and practically no straight lines, but it works very well with the fluid nature of her gait and personality. When she is turned into a human she looks like she stepped straight out of an anime. She is gorgeous compared to all of the other human characters (which does make sense since she is very otherworldly). All the other humans are very disproportionate. You get your standard tall and lanky, short and squat characters. Dimensions do tend to shift depending on how close a character is to another character, or what angle you look at them from.
The only thing that really didn’t work for me is the soundtrack composed and arranged by Jimmy Webb and performed by the band America. They’re supposed to feel earthy and ethereal at the same time, but the songs just sort of sit there and halt any action the film is trying to build. You’re probably not going to get these songs stuck in your head like the songs of a certain princess with ice powers.
To give a little history, Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass formed a partnership in the 60’s and one of their seminal collaborations was the 1964 stop-motion holiday classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They followed that up with a number of other holiday classics (that are still shown today), then started delving into traditional animation with a somewhat more adult and fantasy influence with the likes of The Hobbit in 1977 and The Return of the King in 1980. For those of us who grew up in the 70’s Rankin/Bass had a lot of influence on our lives, but one of the biggest for me was The Last Unicorn. It wasn’t standard Disney fare and was a lot darker than typical animated films. In 1982 The Last Unicorn was part of a one-two punch to my mind, along with Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH. Those films showed me that choices could have real consequences for the protagonist and what they wanted at the beginning of their journey didn’t always turn out the way they expected.
It’s interesting that both of those films have an older female protagonist, male antagonist, and a dorky male sidekick, but I leave that to someone else to decide what that means, I just point it out.
As I’ve mentioned, these films were darker than your standard kids fare, and even had Disney trying to delve a bit darker a few years later with The Black Cauldron in 1985, but since that didn’t succeed for them (great source material—bad script) they went back to their roots and a few years later had a major resurgence with The Little Mermaid in 1989.
It’s not a highly polished Disney product, but there is a lot of heart in this film and it’s nice to see some actual danger in an animated feature. I would recommend it if you’re my age and want to relive your childhood, younger than me and want to try something a little different, or if you just want to introduce the family to a fun film with a female protagonist that goes on a self-imposed quest.
Feel free to discuss the film further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.