Category Archives: Reviews

Sleeping Beauty (1959)

I’ve watched Disney’s 1959 animated feature film version of Sleeping Beauty several times, the most recent time being in its utterly pristine, gorgeous Blu-ray. And when I say gorgeous, I mean gorgeous. I’m no Blu-ray expert, but even I can tell they pulled out all the stops on this one. Every frame is like a great painting. And really, that speaks to the film’s strengths as a whole. It’s easily the most opulent film made under Walt’s regime, full of pomp, beauty, terrific character animation in a different, far more angular and abstract style than usual, and one of their best action climaxes ever (not just the short dragon fight, but the escape and build up). So saying all of that, what’s my opinion on the film as a whole? In a word: good. Or rather, the rest of the film BESIDES the visuals is good, but those are amazing. The rest is just not on the same level, whereas in some other cases, even if the animation isn’t up to par, I can recommend Disney films on writing or acting levels (Robin Hood, for instance).

This is not so much the case here, though there are a few things I do enjoy re: the writing and acting, and I suppose I should go ahead and mention them now. First things first, the three fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather are clearly the film’s main characters, and the story is much better off for that realization. Like most films (hell, this film) during this era of Disney, they’re broadly drawn stereotypes, but are amusing in their flaws and foibles: Flora is the leader, Fauna is a bit of a scatterbrain, and Merryweather a smartass grouch. My favorite non-Maleficent line in the film is, when told she can’t turn Maleficent into a toad because their magic is supposed to make people happy, to respond “Well, it would make ME happy.” Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston supervised the animation on them, and they’re full of life throughout as a result, while Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen and Barbara Luddy do a great job as the voices. The other side characters like Kings Hubert and Stefan are also well done; the scene where they drunkenly celebrate and argue while a minstrel sneaks wine into his glass and then guitar is a film highlight.

And then we have our villain, Maleficent. Wooooooo boy is she AWESOME. While I enjoyed the revisionist Angelina Jolie-starring Maleficent from last year to a certain degree (mostly because Jolie acted the shit out of it), I have to admit to preferring the unapologetically pure-evil version found in the animated film. Surprisingly, she’s not actually in the film all that much; the film is 75 minutes long and she’s onscreen in total for maybe about 10-15 of those. But between Marc Davis’ brilliant design and animation, her getting the best lines (in particular a marvelous little scene where she outlines a cruel future for Prince Philip, in rhyme no less), and Eleanor Audley’s terrific performance, she’s a Disney villain for the ages. Even her dragon form is onscreen for a very short amount of time, roughly a minute, but it kicks so much ass that it’s what a lot of people only remember about the movie. Even her goons are memorable, sharp edged and nasty like her, and her crumbling castle lair has some great backgrounds, though this is basically “Great Backgrounds For Your Desktop: The Movie”. Little wonder that Maleficent ends up as the architect or leader in a lot of Disney’s crossover material like Kingdom Hearts.

And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there’s a big gaping hole in the middle of the film that just does not really work for me at all: our ostensible leading lady and man. Now, I should note that they’re not awful characters. Aurora/Briar Rose and Philip are, like the rest of the film, brilliantly designed and animated (Davis pulling double duty on her, and Milt Kahl doing Philip), and as a result show more personality than, say, Snow White or Cinderella or their princes. There are some great bits where Aurora slyly figures out that the fairies are hiding something from her, but plays along anyway, and Philip gets some good facial reactions. Mary Costa and Bill Shirley do an admirable job with their vocal and sung parts. And “Once Upon A Dream” is a great song, one of the classic Disney love songs, even if perhaps the film doesn’t completely earn it. Really, the music as a whole is wonderful, with composer George Bruns rearranging Tchiakovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet into the score and songs (“Once Upon A Dream” is the ballet’s waltz for instance).

Honestly, after all that, there’s not really a whole lot I feel I can say about the film. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated fairy tale that benefits immensely from the artistry and not much else. As a technical exercise, it’s brilliant, and story-wise it’s far from unwatchable or boring; I might not buy “Once Upon A Dream”, but I can certainly appreciate how it looks and moves. It just doesn’t quite strike me as the best of the best, the cream of the crop. I like my Disney films to have a little more meat on them character-wise, and no matter how hard those fairies, good and evil, work, I just can’t buy into the film emotionally when its romantic leads are duller than dirt.

So in the end, I do quite LIKE Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fantastic experience. I only wish it were a little better as a film.

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Despicable Me 2

Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen the film, it is not recommended that you read this review.

Looking back, 2010 was a damn good year for American theatrical animation. Toy Story 3 ended Pixar’s most popular franchise on a high note (though we have had more shorts and specials since), was a stellar DreamWorks outing from the minds behind Lilo and Stitch, and DreamWorks’ other big film Megamind was a fun lark (let’s just forget about Shrek Forever After). And then there was the surprise hit of the summer, Despicable Me. Coming from the new Illumination Studios that was essentially a co-venture between America and France, it was a charming, funny and clever tale about a villain named Gru who ended up adopting three orphan girls. Perhaps it was a bit formulaic, but it earned a lot of goodwill for its stylized animation and surprisingly unique performances from the cast, especially Steve Carell’s bizarrely-accented Gru. Alas, I almost suspect that the creative success of that film was a fluke. Their next fully animated film (their second project was Hop, a live-action/animated combo about the Easter Bunny), an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, was almost completely dreadful, a dull, mechanical slog that managed to spectacularly miss the point of the story. And now comes Despicable Me 2, which has its mild charms but is otherwise “just” a sequel.

The biggest disappointment is arguably that Gru’s not really a villain anymore. Part of the fun of the original film was that he tried to balance his schemes against the growing bond he had with the girls, and had little interest for anything beyond that. The sequel opens in a frankly bizarre place as he hosts a birthday party for his youngest daughter Agnes, and it’s revealed that he wants to be a legitimate businessman by making jams and jellies. I suppose I can see the story logic behind this (he doesn’t want to continue working in ways that might harm his family), but it’s just not any fun. Especially since he’s recruited by the previously unseen Anti-Villain League to help them catch a villain currently scheming to take over the world. This leads to another disappointing character: Lucy (Kristen Wiig), Gru’s new partner and love interest.

Now, I wasn’t opposed to the idea of Gru having a love interest, especially since Lucy starts out as such a fun, quirky character brought to life by Wiig’s scatterbrained energy. But it’s set up in a bizarre way at the birthday party because Agnes is sad she doesn’t have a mother. Now, this is a perfectly reasonable way for a little girl to feel, but it almost feels like the film is suggesting that a single father isn’t enough to raise a family. Additionally, Lucy and Gru’s romance feels way too rushed; there are perfunctory bonding moments, but I just don’t buy that they would risk everything for each other at the end of the movie. Her sliding into the damsel-in-distress role at the climax is also rather annoying.

Now, I said the film does have its pleasures, and it does. The voicework is still very good, with the highlight of the non-Lucy new characters being El Macho, who Benjamin Bratt invests with all the Mexican bravado he can muster. Macho is perhaps a total stereotype, but he livens up the film whenever he appears, and the way he behaves as a father could have served as an interesting contrast to Gru. Some fun cameos come from the likes of Ken Jeong as a red herring store owner, Steve Coogan as the man in charge of AVL, and Kristen Schaal as a disastrous date for Gru. The Minions are still funny, though they’re around in much larger doses this time around since they became the breakout characters of the first film, and have their own feature-length adventure coming down the pipeline. And when Gru does occasionally give in to his villain impulses (such as when he freeze’s Macho’s son Antonio for breaking his oldest daughter Margo’s heart), it’s a reminder of how funny he used to be. The animation is still very nice and cartoony, especially in the exaggerated luchador mannerisms of Macho.

The problem is that the movie just feels like an obligation. It doesn’t feel like a quantum leap forward like the Toy Story sequels were; it feels more like the frequently boring Disney direct-to-video sequels that they churned out in the 90s and 2000s. After this, I unfortunately can’t say that I’m looking forward all that much to the inevitable Despicable Me 3.

Director’s Series: Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away

Note: This review is more of a generalized one, discussing the animation, music and acting. The story, themes and characters will be the subject of a longer, more in-depth essay. As such, the plot will be covered there.

It’s the film that eclipsed Titanic at the Japanese box office, that won Miyazaki his first American Oscar, and is nearly universally adored by critics around the world. Does it deserve that praise? Absolutely. While Princess Mononoke is my favorite of Miyazaki’s films, Spirited Away is still an absolute masterpiece. It’s almost unfair that he and the army of animators at Studio Ghibli were able to make a film this good.

The film feels like a wonderful dream half the time, one that both our hero Chihiro/Sen (Daveigh Chase in the dub, who had just voiced Lilo of Lilo & Stitch for Disney) and we are having. To my understanding, this was the first Ghibli film entirely inked and painted digitally (Mononoke has some sequences done this way, but is still largely hand-inked and painted). I love the traditional way myself, but there’s no denying that this way gives the characters more of a snap and freedom. In particular, I can’t imagine the greedy witch Yubaba (Suzanne Pleshette) or the spider-man Kamaji (David Ogden Stiers) looking as good as they do in the older, softer style of the early films. Visually, it is an embarrassment of riches.

Joe Hiasishi puts in one of his best scores of all time, arguably. I especially like the tense, early sections of the film when Chihiro is thrust into this strange world. The music pounds in alternate moods of excitement and terror. The Disney dub, supervised by Pixar’s John Lasseter and Beauty and the Beast co-director Kirk Wise, is one of their very best. Chase is perhaps a little whiny and shouting in the first part of the film, but considering that’s what her character is doing, I cut her some slack, and her acting is excellent throughout the whole film anyway. Pleshette arguably steals the show, with her harsh, raspy voice and the smooth way she glides through the various contours of Yubaba’s surprisingly complex personality. Stiers is gruff but lovable; even when he is a jerk to Chihiro in their first scene, we sense that he is not altogether bad. Marsden has a young voice that is by turns mysterious and encouraging, and his ambiguous performance helps keep the audience uncertain about his motives. Susan Egan (who had played Meg in Disney’s Hercules a few years prior) is terrific as Lin, a cynical bathhouse worker who ends up becoming a tough older sister figure to Chihiro. On the supporting end of things, Bob Bergen (the current voice of Porky Pig) gets some excellent work in the scenes when his frog character is swallowed and then imitated by the mysterious No-Face, the unmistakable John Ratzenberger shows up as a prominent manager, and Michael Chiklis and Lauren Holly nail their opening scenes as Chihiro’s arrogant, unhelpful parents.

As noted above, a separate essay will cover the film, scene-by-scene, in terms of plot, story, character and themes. I could easily write an entire book on just this film. But for now, I will simply say that Spirited Away is a gem of a movie, and deserves to be seen by everyone on the planet. If you haven’t seen it, go. Rent it, buy it, download it off Itunes, I don’t care. It cries out to be experienced by new eyes.

Director’s Series: Hayao Miyazaki: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Spoiler Warning: As before, don’t read if you haven’t seen the movie.

While it has a little more in terms of incidents and structure (as well as a thrilling climax), Kiki’s Delivery Service is another largely quiet, gentle film from Hayao Miyazaki. While we will be getting to his comparatively more action-packed stories later, I thought it was a nice idea to start off with his more soothing films. It lets me build up to the pure unadulterated awesomeness of the aforementioned films.

Based on a Japanese novel, the film tells the story of Kiki (voice of Kirsten Dunst in the Disney dub), a young witch-in-training who has just turned 13. She’s decided to leave home for her year aboard, a tradition of all witches in this world. With her faithful talking cat Jiji (Phil Hartman, in one of his last roles before his murder) by her side, she winds up in a beautiful seaside town. After a rough first day, she ends up helping out a kind, pregnant baker named Osono (voice acting goddess Tress MacNeille), and they strike a deal to let Kiki stay there and run a delivery service out of the bakery. Along the way, she makes some new friends like the artist Ursula (Janeane Garofalo), aviation enthusiast Tombo (Matthew Lawrence), and the elderly Madame (Debbie Reynolds). But her powers began to mysteriously fade, and now Kiki must figure out why if she wants to remain a witch…

Above all else, the film is a character study about Kiki. She’s a bright, happy young girl, but she has one real, overriding flaw: she wants to please EVERYONE at the expense of her own needs. What makes this slightly agonizing for the viewer is that both we and other characters DO like her a lot. But she has trouble with accepting herself for herself, so she works overtime and burns out. She eventually learns the value of self acceptance (if you like yourself, others probably will), but it takes some going. Luckily the kindness of her friends prevails, especially Ursula during a crucial late passage where she learns of Kiki’s troubles with magic and invites her to stay at her cabin in the nearby woods. Here Ursula explains that she ran into a similar problem at Kiki’s age with her art, and that she just had to develop her own style in order to keep painting. So Kiki must find her own way to live and be a witch.

It is possible I have made the film sound heavier than it really is. Most of it, like Totoro, is filled to the brim with sweetness and Miyazaki’s warm human comedy. Jiji is an especially fun character, functioning as the sarcastic, pragmatic Jiminy Cricket to Kiki’s Pinocchio. There’s a lovely little scene that subverts our expectations where, imitating a stuffed toy cat Kiki has lost and must recover from the woods, he encounters an old dog in the intended recipient’s house. But it soon becomes clear that the dog senses Jiji’s trouble, and comes to act as his protector while Kiki is away. The burgeoning relationships Kiki has with her surrogate mother Osono, Tombo and Madame are also quite heartwarming. I love the moment near the end where Madame bakes a cake for Kiki and wants to know her birthday so she can bake another one.

As I noted before, the film comes to more of a climax than Totoro did (where the drama of Mei missing was rather quickly resolved thanks to the help of Totoro and the Catbus). A visiting dirigible, set up earlier in the film with radio broadcasts, has been blown off its moorings due to high winds. But Tombo was on board, and now Kiki must summon up all her strength to fly to his rescue. She ends up having to borrow a street sweeper’s broom, and it gives her some major trouble, but everything ends happily when she successfully rescues him, the whole town rooting for her and exploding into applause/cheers. In any other film, such an exciting conclusion might seem out of place, but Kiki earns every scrap of it.

The music by Joe Hisaishi is once again terrific and perfectly chosen. The dub was the first Disney ever created for Ghibli, and so there are perhaps a few bumps in the road (the opening and ending Japanese songs are replaced with new English ones, some previously silent scenes are papered over with dialogue, though I don’t find either change to be terribly intrusive), but I quite enjoy it all the same. Getting the still-young Kirsten Dunst to voice Kiki was a great move; she brings all the highs and lows of her personality to life wonderfully. Hartman is of course brilliant as Jiji. Many of his adlibs are perfectly in-character, so much so that I miss them in the more recent DVD/Blu-ray release that cuts many of them to bring things closer to the Japanese version of the film. Damn, 15 years on, I still miss him. Janeane Garofalo only has a couple scenes as Ursula, but she does quite well in them, serving as a friend and mentor to Kiki (though I think her best voice-over role is still Collete from Ratatouille). MacNeille gives one of my favorite performances from her as Osono, so warm and motherly (I get the feeling she would get along well with a certain Minnesota police officer), Matthew Lawrence is sprightly and energetic as Tombo, and Debbie Reynolds is perfectly sweet as Madame.

In the end, while it’s not my favorite Miyazaki, Kiki’s is still such a delightful outing that I always love revisiting it. And like Totoro, it’s one of the first films I intend to show to any children I might have in the future. In addition to being entertained…I think they could learn a lot from it.

Director’s Series: Hayao Miyazaki: My Neighbor Totoro

Spoiler Warning: As usual, I’ll be discussing key events and themes from the film, although there is less to spoil in this case than in others. If you haven’t seen the film, I would not recommend reading this review.

If animation is something of a religion to me, Hayao Miyazaki is one of its own true gods. As far as I’m concerned, he is the undisputed master of Japanese animation (or “anime”). I cannot think of a single bad or even mediocre film in his filmography, although I have yet to see his most current and apparently final film, The Wind Rises. The news that he would retire (for real this time, as he’s threatened it before) saddened me deeply. But for this director’s series (which you will notice is not in chronological order, because…well, it’s my blog), joy will be the primary emotion felt, especially with this entry, My Neighbor Totoro. Which is one of the happiest damn films I’ve ever seen.

Set in late 1950s Japan, it tells the story of two young girls, Satsuki and Mei Kusakabe (voiced in the 2005 Disney dub by real-life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning). They have moved with their father (Tim Daly) to the countryside to be closer to their mother, who is in the hospital with an unspecified illness. They pass the days by cleaning up their house, going to school and encountering strange creatures known as Totoros. And…that’s pretty much it. One of the charms of the film, actually, is that aside from some brief drama late in the film when Mei goes missing, is that it has such a relaxed, languid pace. There are no villains to be conquered, no artificially pumped-up conflicts (the girls lash out at each other over Mom’s illness, which leads to Mei going missing, but it’s treated realistically), and the creatures are friendly, wise and just plain fun to be around. The giant Totoro and the Catbus in particular are instantly memorable characters.

It is tempting to call the film episodic since it relies more on incidents and individual scenes than a typical three-act structure, although I’m sure you could find some form of that if you dug deep enough. But I think it’s more about mood and character than story. Satsuki and Mei are two of the most realistic little girls I’ve ever encountered in cinema. I particularly enjoy how Satsuki almost wants to grow up too fast, and is more aware of the potential trouble of her mother’s illness, while Mei is younger and still cheerfully unaware of life’s complications. Their father is also wonderful, and while it’s tough to tell if he REALLY believes the girls’ reports of fantastical creatures, he loves them enough to trust and encourage their imaginations.

And Totoro….god, what can I say about this big guy? He’s almost more childish than the girls despite being so huge. There’s an absolutely magical scene where he stands at a bus stop that the girls are waiting for their father at. It is raining. Satsuki notices that Totoro only has a leaf to protect him from getting wet, so she hands him an extra umbrella. He doesn’t know what it is (there’s a delightful bit of animation where he turns it around in his paws, practically going “Huh?”). So she demonstrates, which he copies. A stray drop of water from a tree hits his umbrella. Then another. And a few more. He grins, then jumps and SLAMS into the ground to create a downpour from the trees. Totoro ROARS with joy at this delightful new game. There’s a similarly enchanting scene when Mei first meets Totoro, snuggling on his belly and imitating his roars.

It seems like I’m gushing, but that’s the spell this movie puts me under. I have a big-ass grin on my face for pretty much the entire running time. The immaculate craft of the movie, be it the perfectly paced animation and direction or Joe Hisaishi’s delightful score, is in the service of some of the most enchanting creatures I’ve ever seen. The film has been dubbed twice, but I prefer the 2005 Disney re-dub. The Fannings, especially Elle, are perfectly natural, sweet and funny as the sisters, and the effortlessly noble Daly (he WAS Superman, guys) is great as the dad. Pat Carroll (Ursula from Disney’s Little Mermaid) does some nice work as an elderly neighbor who takes the family under her wing. And Frank Welker, that voice acting deity of both human voices and animal noises, puts in some great roars and growls for Totoro and the Catbus.

This is the kind of movie you can curl up next to with a nice cup of hot cocoa and a big fluffy pillow. If I ever have kids, this will be one of the first films I show them. I can only hope they love it as much as I do.

The Stop-Motion Chronicles: Fantastic Mr. Fox

SPOILER WARNING: As usual, I will be discussing key events and themes from the movie. Do NOT read this if you have not seen the film.

For whatever reason, I haven’t been a big fan of Wes Anderson until his last two films. Oh, they were well-made and acted, to be sure, and he’s impeccable at picking the right music for a scene. But they always left me cold; I wanted to get interested in the characters, but it felt like they and Anderson were keeping me at arm’s length. But both this film and Anderson’s next, Moonrise Kingdom, blew past all my defenses. Especially since Fantastic Mr. Fox is so wonderfully odd, hand-crafted and funny.

Based on the beloved children’s book by that legendary master of black comedy Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is about, well, Fox (voiced by George Clooney). He’s a retired chicken thief now working as a newspaper columnist (I love that I can even type that sentence). But he’s starting to feel what I guess equates to a mid-life crisis. He’s growing distant from his “different” son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), he wants to move to a nicer house (or tree, in this case), and he keeps feeling the itch to steal from the nearby humans again. His wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) will have none of it, but he can’t resist, and begins to steal from the farmers Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness) and Bean (Michael Gambon). Unsurprisingly, this comes back to bite him in the ass, and now he has to fix things in order to ensure the survival of his friends and family. Add a visiting nephew named Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) who makes Ash feel jealous and inadequate, and you’ve got a recipe for prime awkwardness.

The first thing that one must talk about is how the film looks and moves. As technology improves, stop-motion has been able to become smoother and more fluid as time has gone on. Look at Henry Selick’s films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline, or last year’s ParaNorman (which was produced by the same studio as Coraline but had different directors). Fantastic Mr. Fox takes a different, more old-school approach where the characters move with noticeably jerky joint movements, but the film is no less lovely for it. It’s quite beautiful, actually, especially the lovingly hand-crafted environments, special effects and costumes. In fact, the jerkiness only adds to the comedy in a lot of places, such as when Bean tears apart the inside of his trailer in a rage. The score by Alexandre Desplat supplements the action rather than seeming overbearing, and the popular music choices are again perfectly chosen (especially the ending dance to, well, “Let Her Dance”).

Anderson brings along several of his usual suspects in terms of actors, but also brings on some new voices/faces, and they’re all excellent. Clooney has played roles like this before, of course, but he gets to bring new dimensions and neuroses forth in the combination of his voice and the stop-motion puppet. Meryl Streep is of course flawless as Mrs. Fox; has she ever given a bad performance? Schwartzman doesn’t really sound like a teenager at this point anymore, I suppose, but he still gets across all the little quirks and oddities of his character. Bill Murray is basically Bill Murray as a Badger, Fox’s lawyer, and he gets some great turns-of-phrase and outbursts to play with. Former Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky puts in quite a funny, slightly out-of-it performance as Kylie, a possum who keep spacing out at inopportune moments. Anderson is smooth and naturalistic as the humble but talented Kristofferson, the Brits are all wonderfully despicable, and there are fun vocal cameos from the likes of Willem Dafoe as a sinister Rat, Mario Batali as a rabbit chef, and Owen Wilson as the school coach.

What I find most interesting about the film is how it manages to perfectly blend the sensibilities of Anderson and Dahl. From Anderson we have the family issues, odd character beats and music choices; from Dahl there is the wicked dark humor and distrust of modern society, especially in the ludicrous extremes Boggins, Bunce and Bean take to exterminate their animal nemesis. Dahl trusted the intelligence of children in his books, and so does Anderson in his film. He doesn’t gloss over violence (Rat is quite explicitly killed off late in the film, though he gets a little moment of redemption), hurt feelings or the family problems at all. At one point, Felicity even says that while she loves Fox, she shouldn’t have married him. For an American animated film aimed at families, that’s pretty heavy. The Kristofferson/Ash conflict resolves itself in quite a touching way, but before that there’s all the awkward angst of a young man feeling like he is being replaced in his father’s affections. And while everything turns out more or less all right at the end, it’s tough getting there.

I suppose, in the end, what I like most about the film is that despite the fact that it’s violent, harsh and dark at points, the tone is overall warm, inviting and funny. I think making this movie freed Anderson from the limitations of live action, and thus informed the more fairy tale/storybook quality of Moonrise Kingdom, which is similarly sweet and charming. 2009 was a great year for different types of animation (CGI, stop-motion, hand-drawn, and even Flash), and this is easily one of the best outings from it.

The Last Unicorn

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.