The Last Unicorn (Rankin/Bass, ITC Films, 1982)


This is the animated version of Peter S. Beagle's fantasy classic, and it is satisfyingly true to the original novel. The plot has not been altered one whit, although the length of the film (98 minutes) necessitated that some portions be left out. For those who do not read (and what are you doing on this site, huh?) this is the plot: The last unicorn in the world goes in search of her missing kin. She meets Strange Creatures and Companions, both good and evil. She has adventures, is transformed into a girl, and finds both love and the rest of the unicorns. She defeats an evil king and a monstrous Red Bull, and frees the unicorns at the cost of her love and humanity. It is a moving and beautiful story, and this little film does it considerable justice.

While not one of the major animation houses, Rankin-Bass was a competent production company with several successes in both its television and feature film history. Its most famous television offering is probably Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, one of several stop-motion holiday specials; and in feature films, Rankin-Bass produced both a well-received version of The Hobbit, and later the third book of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King (books 1 and 2 being tied up by Saul Zaentz in a convoluted struggle over movie rights).

The Last Unicorn is the favorite movie of a 6-year old friend of mine named Adelia. I asked her about why she liked it and what she liked best. On consideration, Adelia said that she liked it because she loved unicorns and fairy tales, and The Last Unicorn is "a really good fairy tale." Her favorite scenes are where the unicorn is transformed into a woman, and then later where she defeats the Red Bull and all the unicorns are freed. "Their hooves shake down the evil king's castle and he is killed by the falling stones," Adelia told me with a satisfied air. (Kids like justice, and are not as adverse to violence in its defense as we weak-spirited adults think.) It seems to me that Adelia, representing the target audience, got the point of the movie handily. That's a pretty good endorsement.

Of course, Peter S. Beagle wrote the screenplay himself, which contributes hugely to the film's charm. The dialogue is intact. The settings have been brought to life amazingly well by the artists and animators. The backgrounds are especially well-done, with the illuminated look of old-fashioned hand-colored cells, and the opening and closing credits are enhanced with beautiful multi-plane shots based on the famous medieval Unicorn Tapestries now hanging on display in the Cloisters Museum in New York City..

The characters are a little lumpy but blessedly not sweetened up. Haggard is appropriately grim; Schmendrick the Magician and Molly Grue and Prince Lir are endearingly human; and the unicorn really is lovely without being at all cute. There are a few oddities, like giving the harpy a long white beard instead of long white hair, but most things work well. In her human form as the Lady Amalthea, the unicorn looks unnervingly like an anime character, with huge violet eyes forever on the verge of tears and a trembling mouth. But that's because the animation was farmed out to several Japanese companies, including Topcraft, a firm that in the fullness of time evolved into Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. As a result, The Last Unicorn is now considered to be an important work in proto-anime. I'd love to see what the redoubtable Miyazaki-san could make of it now.

Voice talent was not as important in animated features in 1982 as it is today, but most of the cast here is top-notch and does a great job. Alan Arkin is a bit wooden at first as Schmendrick, but warms up as he goes along. Tammy Grimes (Molly) and Jeff Bridges (Lir) bring a nice human longing to their parts. Angela Lansbury plays a villain for once, the dreadful Mommy Fortuna, and is terrific. And Christopher Lee, who could not do a bad job if he tried, is a wonderfully obsessed King Haggard.

The voice of the unicorn is provided by Mia Farrow, and she is the only weak point. Her voice, while high and sweet, is also thin; her challenging whinny, while obviously intended as a crystalline peal, is more like a hamster squeak with vibrato. Her singing is a grave error (and was dubbed over in some subsequent releases).

In fact, the music in general is a disappointment. In 1982, you couldn't do a cartoon without songs. I wish the producers had used some of Mr. Beagle's apt and lovely poetry, instead of the bland tunes written by Jimmy Webb and sung by the pop band America. But they don't really detract from the film, and my friend Adelia likes them well enough.

The Last Unicorn is not a children's book. Were it filmed today, I doubt that it would be a children's film, either. Nonetheless, it was made in 1982 as precisely that, and has proven to be tremendously popular with kids. (It was checked out at every library and rental store in which I looked.) I must say that it doesn't disappoint an adult, either. The Rankin-Bass production has some flaws, but is overall a good adaptation of the book.

The Last Unicorn was produced by Rankin-Bass for ITC Entertainment, whose film library was subsequently bought by the London-based media conglomerate Granada International. Granada has not treated the film or Mr. Beagle well in the ensuing years, but it appears that some resolution may be reached soon about the considerable royalties owed to Mr. Beagle. Interested parties can get updates here. And anyone concerned with laying out money for a copy is advised that the movie is available at most libraries and rental stores, in both VHS and DVD formats. Children have usually taken it out, though, so you may have to request it.

[Kathleen Bartholomew]

illustration: portion of special gift art presented to producer Arthur Rankin by the animation team on The Last Unicorn

Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy ]: