The older one gets, the more one’s analysis of The Last Unicorn evolves. Children who see it tend to either fall in love with it immediately, or grow restless with its slow pace and interminable folk songs. But only when you’ve grown up can you understand its beautiful subtleties: the pervading sense of sadness intertwined within its fantasy adventure. Animators Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass specialized in exclusively children’s fare – from the stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer to the decidedly family friendly version of The Hobbit – and it’s tempting to place The Last Unicorn in the same category. Doing so almost misses the point. Hit the jump for my full review of the film on Blu-ray.
Certainly, the film lacks any of the intense conflict or brooding darkness that we often associate with adult values. The action stays in the abstract and the set pieces grapple with ideas rather than physical violence. The Last Unicorn stays resolutely G-rated and the bright colors should easily appeal to the very young.
The storyline too is perfectly straightforward, as a unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow) leaves her woodland sanctuary to learn if she is truly the last of her kind. Her road leads to the castle of King Haggard (voiced by Christopher Lee), who controls a terrible Red Bull that may have chased the other unicorns into the sea. Along the way, she picks up a pair of human companions, who both can see her for what she truly is, and who both grapple with powerful losses in their lives.
Their quest follows the standard pattern of the Hero’s Journey, but it diverges in important and unexpected ways. For example, watch the stunning moment when the middle-aged Molly Grue (voiced by Tammy Grimes) meets the unicorn for the first time, and tearfully berates her for not coming “when I was one of those innocent young maidens.” Credit for most of it goes to Peter S. Beagle, who wrote the source novel and penned the screenplay here.
The dialogue sparkles with remarkable wit, brought to life by an all-star cast (who came to the film in an era when voiceover work was far from in vogue). More importantly, it seeks not to deconstruct fairy tale tropes, but to lend them a sense of wistfulness and tragedy that other stories of this ilk cannot hope to achieve. That may go over the heads of The Last Unicorn’s presumed audience but it brings wonderful dramatic depth to what might have been a run-of-the-mill kids’ film.
The animators augment it with some lovely character design and a distinctive visual style. Though it lacks the richness of Disney’s best works, it still provides a marvelous sylvan canvas upon which the story can unfold, as well as principle figures dripping with personality. Japan’s Topcraft Studios animated the film under the direction of Rankin and Bass, and it bears more in common with Eastern anime than Western cartoons. (The folks at Topcraft, incidentally, went on to work closely with Hayao Miyazaki on some of his best films.)
The Blu-ray image, unfortunately, doesn’t begin to do it justice. Telltale graininess crops up throughout The Last Unicorn: marginally less intrusive than the DVD, but lacking a proper digital transfer to really make it sparkle. (The Blu-ray set also contains a DVD, identical in every fashion to the 25th anniversary version released a few years ago.)
The extra features feel a little spartan as well: a few art galleries, the original trailer and some run-of-the-mill interviews with the filmmakers. Yet the disc also features a singular trump card that counters all of those flaws. Beagle and publisher Connor Cochran provide a remarkably insightful audio commentary – marred only by Cochran’s repeatedly plugging of a Last Unicorn comic – and Beagle himself speaks at length during one of the documentaries.
In both cases, the author’s remarks shed priceless light on the endeavor, and should more than justify the cost of a purchase for longtime fans. Not that they’ll need much incentive. The Last Unicorn has built quite a cult following over the years. Its charms hold up exceptionally well, in part because it grows along with its audience. Few stories carry that kind of power, and fewer pieces of animation can bring it so marvelously to life.