SPOILER WARNING: I will be discussing key events and themes from the film’s story. If you have not seen the film, do NOT read this review/essay.
The Last Unicorn is a wonderful little curiosity that, despite some 80s trappings, holds up very well. It serves as a fantasy that is more about ideas and questions about humanity and magic than the typical American animated film.
Adapting his own novel (which I have not read), Peter Beagle crafts a world where the magic is slowly but surely dying off. The titular last unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow) becomes curious about what happened to her kind after a chance encounter with two hunters in the lush, green forest that she protects. From there she encounters many new friends and foes alike, including a kind but incompetent magician named Schmendrick (Alan Arkin), the wizened circus owner Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury), the bitter Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), and the mysterious King Haggard (Christopher Lee), who may hold the key to the disappearance of the unicorns with his Red Bull. Things grow more complicated when Schmendrick transforms the unicorn into a human to save her life, and Haggard’s son, Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges), begins to fall in love with her…
The film, produced by Rankin/Bass and animated in Japan by Topcraft (who later animated Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and would then form Studio Ghibli), is in much the same style as the Rankin/Bass Tolkien adaptations like The Hobbit or The Return of the King. But to me, the film looks and moves better than those attempts because the designs are more streamlined and don’t have as many lines on the characters that are more difficult to animate. The titular unicorn looks particularly beautiful in motion, and the Red Bull is terrifying to behold (especially the slobber beneath its jaws). The backgrounds are quite lovely too, even Haggard’s decaying castle. It’s not Disney-level animation, no, but it’s quite a gorgeous film in its own right.
The voice work is quite strong, even excellent in places. Granted, it helps that the actors have such lovely, elegant dialogue to work with. Mia Farrow has an interesting combination of delicacy and hidden strength for the Unicorn, and she gets to play with some interesting stuff in the second half as “Lady Amalthea”. From what I’ve heard, Beagle wasn’t terribly fond of Alan Arkin’s performance as Schmendrick, but I like the weary, sarcastic New Yorker cynicism that Arkin brings to the role. Tammy Grimes is fantastic as Molly Grue; she is bitter (especially in an early scene where she laments the unicorn coming to her “now, when I am THIS” instead of when she was young), but she has not completely given in to despair. Christopher Lee lends all the power and resonance he can muster to King Haggard, who’s not even a villain in the traditional fantasy sense (Lee, a big fan of the book, apparently brought a copy to his recording sessions with places marked that he felt could not be cut under any circumstances). Jeff Bridges is at the height of his youthful energy as Lir, and I like the small neuroses he injects at times. The rest of the film is bolstered by great vocal cameos from the likes of Angela Lansbury as the cackling Mommy Fortuna, Rene Auberjonois as a drunken, talking skeleton, Don Messick as a wily cat, Robert Klein as a butterfly who alternately quotes Shakespeare and “Take The A-Train”, and Paul Frees as Haggard’s previous court magician Mabruk.
The music by Jimmy Webb and America feels rather 80s, I suppose (though at least one person I know has likened it more to 70s folk rock, which I admit I’m not as familiar with), but it fits the tone of the film. Especially the weirdly haunting title song. And the instrumental music strikes just the right note as well: exciting in the few places it needs to be, but low-key for the rest. It’s a gentle score for a largely gentle film.
What I like most about the film, more than any of this, is how it plays around with various fantasy tropes and calls them into question. What makes a hero, or a villain for that matter? When we finally learn that Haggard has been keeping the unicorns captive with the Red Bull, it is not out of malevolence or cruelty that he does so. It is…selfishness. He feels young and happy again when he sees them, and wants to feel it as often as he can. The idea of turning a magical creature into a human is also turned on its head; “Amalthea” is terrified at first (“I can feel this body DYING all around me!). And she soon begins to forget her previous life as a unicorn and how she can find the others. Yet throughout all this, she is a wonderfully written character, full of doubts and flaws but still able to win the day through her inner strength and bravery.
The other characters seem to know they are in a fairy tale, and try to bring about a happy ending, though as Schmendrick astutely points out, that is impossible because nothing ever ends. Indeed, the film ends on a decidedly bittersweet note. The unicorn manages to regain her true form and rescue the others, but she will never be the same again. For she is a unicorn that has known love and regret. Still, perhaps that is not so bad in the grand scheme of things. The film is wise enough to let the characters and the audience come to their own conclusions about it.
The Last Unicorn is weird and messy in places; I’m not sure what purpose the scene with the anthropomorphized tree serves outside of being disturbingly funny. But I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. I love this film in all its weird, wonderful ways.