The Last Unicorn (1982)

The Last Unicorn (1982) movie poster

directors Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.
viewed: 01/25/2014

Planning a movie night for Clara and a friend of hers, I decided to opt for movies that might appeal more to young girls, rather than showing what I’ve had on tap for my kids.  I gave Clara a choice of The Last Unicorn, Rango (2011), of The Secret of NIMH (1982), among others, playing online trailers for them for her selection.  She ended up going for The Last Unicorn she said because it was the one that she hadn’t seen.  Fair enough, I thought, as the last time I watched it with the kids was 2007 when she would have been 3.

From Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., known more broadly as Rankin and Bass, the team that brought numerous stop-motion holiday television programs to us throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as the television version of The Hobbit (1977), the film has the studio’s unique character design and more unfortunately, the television quality of animation.  This quality or lack thereof has more to do with what I believe is known as “limited animation”, where the characters move only when necessary, and perhaps the number of frames per second are not as perfectly matched.

That is because aspects of the animation are nice, like the backgrounds, and perhaps the unicorn herself, particularly when she becomes human.  Like so much animation even theoretically produced in the US, the real cel by cel work was shipped off to Asia, in this case Japan, to a studio that would go on to work with Hayao Miyazaki on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)  and eventually form the core of Studio Ghibli.  But the production quality here is limited in comparison, another relatively good example of the dark age of animation, the late 1970’s to early 1980’s.

Adapted from a novel by Peter S. Beagle, it’s a fantasy tale of the titular unicorn, voiced by Mia Farrow, looking for where all the other unicorns disappeared to.  It turns out a selfish king has a giant, fiery red bull that has pushed them all into the sea for his amusement.  The core story and characters are actually the film’s true quality.  That may sound strange to say but the film has other detractors that wind up lessening its overall quality.

The biggest problem with the film is the soundtrack by America.  It’s cheesy enough sounding, but the lyrics are also appalling and embarrassing to fathom.  This may be a taste issue, I suppose, but I am willing to posit that it is actually pretty awful, not just my opinion.  And the worst moment of the film is actually when Mia Farrow sings.  It’s the only song that comes in the diagetic world of the film, the others are just soundtrack music.  Farrow does a good job voicing the unicorn but she is so off-key that it’s kind of shocking they let her go with it.  Jeff Bridges, who voices the prince, duets with her, and also struggles with the tune.  Maybe it is the key, who knows.  It’s appalling.

The voice casting of Alan Arkin as Schmendrick the magician also seems weird.  So weird, that it almost makes one question all of the voice casting.  But in reality the film has a good cast and some, like Farrow, are quite good.

The girls liked the film.  You know, girls and unicorns, right?  Just kidding.  But they did enjoy it.

My only other thing is that when I wrote about this back in 2007, I wrote that I hadn’t seen the film back in the day.  Strangely, over time since then, I’ve come to think that I had seen it at some point.  It seems relatively likely, but now I must say that I don’t know.  Too bad I wasn’t keeping a film diary back in 1982.

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