tek's rating: ½

The Last Unicorn (G)
Dread Central; Great but Forgotten; IMDb; Rankin/Bass Wiki; Rotten Tomatoes; Shout! Factory; TV Tropes; Wikipedia

This movie came out in 1982, but I first saw it much later on TV (probably in the late '90s). It's based on a 1968 novel (which I've never read) by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the film's screenplay. I believe it's the only theatrically-released movie I've ever seen by Rankin/Bass, who are more famous for TV (particularly a number of Christmas specials). I don't remember much about the movie from the first time I saw it, but I'm fairly sure I wasn't terribly impressed by it (though it had an impressive voice cast). Still, it's something I did want to see again someday, so finally I got it on DVD in 2012.

It begins with a pair of hunters entering an apparently magical forest, and the older of the hunters said a unicorn must live there (the younger didn't believe they even existed). The older hunter said the unicorn (which they didn't actually see) was the last one in the world. This greatly troubled the unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow), who found it impossible to believe. Soon after the hunters left, she met a butterfly (who reminded me vaguely of the Creep from Galaxy High), and asked him if he'd ever seen any other unicorns. The butterfly mostly just sang random snippets of songs it had heard (most or all of which were anachronistic), and basically I found it pretty annoying. But it did at one point mention something about unicorns being chased by a red bull. The unicorn wasn't sure if that was valid information, or just another song, but she decided to go out looking for the others of her kind, anyway. She soon discovered that humans couldn't see unicorns (or was reminded of that fact), rather simply seeing her as a beautiful mare, which she seemed to find offensive.

However, not long after that, while she was sleeping, an old witch called Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury), who ran a traveling carnival, came across the unicorn, and immediately recognized her for what she was. She had with her an oafish assistant, who only saw a horse, and an incompetent wizard called Schmendrick the Magician (Alan Arkin), who did see her as a unicorn, but told Fortuna that he only saw a horse. (Pretty much the only thing I remembered about the movie was thinking it was ridiculous to name a character 'Schmendrick,' though I suppose there are probably plenty of people who are unaware that it's an actual Yiddish word meaning 'stupid, ineffectual person.' And I do find it a bit more amusing now than I did in the past.) Anyway, Fortuna's carnival was mainly just a bunch of animals in cages, which she cast illusions over to make people see mythical creatures, though she did have a real harpy. In a nice bit of irony, she gave the unicorn an illusory horn to make spectators see her as a unicorn, where they normally would see a horse. She also told the unicorn about the red bull of King Haggard (Christopher Lee), and told the unicorn she was safer with her than she would be if she was free. She also said something about the harpy that I thought was neatly philosophic. (And which, incidentally, was a sentiment that would in a way be echoed later in the film, about Prince Lir. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Schmendrick frees the unicorn, and they begin traveling together. She wants to find King Haggard and the red bull, hoping to learn more about the other unicorns. Soon after their journey begins, Schmendrick is captured by a band of outlaws led by Captain Cully. However, he later escapes with the unicorn's help, and they're joined by Molly Grue, who was Cully's... girlfriend, or something, I guess. But she'd always wanted to meet a unicorn, and immediately recognized Schmendrick's companion as such. ...Shortly before reaching Haggard's castle, they're attacked by the Red Bull, but manage to escape it via a spell cast by Schmendrick, which caused a dramatic change, the nature of which I don't want to spoil. Anyway, the group finally arrives at the castle, where they meet King Haggard and his son, Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges). Without spoiling the change I mentioned, I can't really explain the turn that the plot takes from this point on. So I'll just say... things get complicated. Also I'll say there's a talking cat that appears to be a pirate, for no apparent reason. And there's a talking skeleton (Rene Auberjonois). And the climax of the movie is actually pretty awesome.

So... the movie was considerably better than I remembered (maybe I liked it better than I thought I did the first time, or maybe I'm just better able to appreciate it now). The animation wasn't bad at all. The music was provided by the band America, which gives the movie a rather (cloying) '70s feel, which I think is kind of appropriate, somehow. There were some things in the movie I found surprisingly risqué. And... there was a fair amount of humor. I definitely thought Schmendrick and Molly were good characters, well-acted in both their funny and serious moments. (Molly was voiced by Tammy Grimes, whom I don't think I know from anything else except voicing Albert in the Rankin/Bass special Twas the Night Before Christmas). And the movie was more dramatic, clever, and touching than I remembered, with a certain degree of realism mixed in with the fantasy and occasional absurdity. All in all... it's not a great film, hardly as memorable or as entertaining as many of the animated movies I've seen, but it definitely has some admirable and uncommon qualities.


animation index
Rankin/Bass
The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass; TV Tropes; Wikia; Wikipedia

stop-motion specials: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer * Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town * The Year Without a Santa Claus * Rudolph's Shiny New Year *
Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey * Rudolph & Frosty's Christmas in July * Pinocchio's Christmas * The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold * The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus

animated specials: Frosty the Snowman * 'Twas the Night Before Christmas * Frosty's Winter Wonderland * The Hobbit * The Stingiest Man in Town

TV series: The New Adventures of Pinocchio * Tales of the Wizard of Oz * ThunderCats * SilverHawks

Movies: Mad Monster Party? * The Flight of Dragons * The Last Unicorn