Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn (1982)
Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.
Written by Peter S. Beagle, from his novel.
Starring (voices): Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, Tammy Grimes, Robert Kline, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee

In general, the names Rankin/Bass guarantee one thing:  lousy animated films.  Their Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is, of course, a holiday classic, but it was the high water mark of their TV work, which consisted primarily of holiday specials that are completely forgettable, with a tendency to go with the lowest common denominator and to assume the old "it's for kid, so quality doesn't matter."*

So when they took on Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, there was no reason to be thrilled.** But the result is a classic of animation.

The story follows the novel very closely.  It tells of a high fantasy world where all the unicorns are gone -- except one (Mia Farrow).  She joins up with the incompetent Schmendrick the Magician (Alan Arkin) and Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes) to find out what happened to all the rest.  The patch leads to King Haggard's (Christopher Lee) castle and the monstrous Red Bull.

It's a tale told with poetry and wonder.  Much of the book's dialogue became part of the movie; Christopher Lee, who had read the book, came prepared with a list of lines that should not be omitted.

But in addition to the story and characterization, the animation was first class.  Rankin and Bass had farmed it out to the Japanese studio Topcraft.  This turned out to be an excellent choice:  the animators thought of themselves as artists and used a style that had been barely seen in America; what we now call anime.

The movie was a great combination of storytelling and animation, and still one of the most sophisticated American animated films.

The movie was well received, and did OK at the box office, but at this time Rankin/Bass was on its last legs.  They went out of business a few years later.  The movie also suffered by being released a before DVDs were common.  By the time a tape came out, the movie had been forgotten.

Topcraft also went out of business -- but not before the animators were hired by Hayao Miyazaki to do Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Miyazaki liked their work well enough to hire their core people when he was starting up Studio Ghibli, and you can see similarities in the style of The Last Unicorn and various Studio Ghibli films.

The Last Unicorn is high fantasy at its best, one of the few times that it was translated well to screen.  It's a must for fans of fantasy and animation.

*Though the Heat Miser/Snow Miser song from  The Year Without a Santa Claus is a classic.  But note the names:  a miser is stingy, but the characters are actually generous with heat and cold.

**Beagle is reported as saying he was "horrified" when he discovered Rankin/Bass would produce.  Their previous forays into high fantasy -- The Hobbit and The Return of the King -- did little to help Tolkien's reputation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My daughter loved this movie when she watched it in the early 90s. Made us get the tape - still have it in fact - she still remembers and watches it from time to time even though she's in college :)