‘The Last Unicorn’

The Last Unicorn (1982)
Rated: G
Written by Peter S. Beagle
Directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass
Starring: Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury, Jeff Bridges, Tammy Grimes, Robert Klien
Tagline: There’s Magic in Believing!

By: Shelley Stillo

I was never really a unicorn kind of girl when I was a kid. I was more into Star Wars and doing unspeakable things to my small collection of Barbie dolls. But I must’ve seen the movie The Last Unicorn several hundred times before I was a teenager, starting at five or six years old. Part of this repeat viewing habit came from the fact that my parents, like many others, took full advantage of the VHS as babysitter trend that emerged with the advent affordable home viewing equipment. But it was more than circumstance that drew me to this movie.

The Last Unicorn was one of a handful of animated movies, like The Secret of NIMH, The Hobbit, and Dot and the Bunny, distributed when I was a child that was not released by a major studio. These films provided an alternative to the princesses and talking animals that were the provenance of Disney, but also to the pandering animated dreck, like An American Tail and Land Before Time, that came from the Speilbergian horror, Amblin Entertainment. The material in these non-studio animations tended to be different in terms of content—much of what I remember from The Last Unicorn and similar films seemed designed more for the Dungeons and Dragons crowd than the Mickey Mouse crowd—but also in tone. Something about these films felt less safe, and, to my mind now, more adult than the animation that was more readily available. Need I remind anyone of the childhood trauma that was Watership Down? With the Natsukashi crowd, I think not.

Even though I saw The Last Unicorn more times than I can count as a child, my memory of it has become very clouded since my last viewing, which has to have been at least 15-20 years ago. What has stuck with me from the film has stuck with me quite vividly, though. What I remember:

  • an intense scene about a harpy. I’m not entirely sure what happened in this scene, but I remember it being scary, and I remember that as a child I found it something like profound.
  • I remember something about a clock and another scary image, the Red Bull. When I think of these images, I feel like the film had a fairly complicated mythology for an animated endeavor.
  • I can’t forget, can’t imagine anyone who has ever encountered this film at any time for any length of time could forget, the soundtrack, which featured America. The theme song is particularly striking. It’s the kind of song that will be stuck in your head for hours at the mere mention of the film’s title. At the time, I found it emotionally engaging, though thinking about it now, it starts to smell a bit of cheese. “I’m aliiiiiivvveeee”

New memories: Though the story is simpler than I remember, the incomparable vocal (it seems that all roads in my life lead to Christopher Lee!) and animation talents ensure that The Last Unicorn ages much more gracefully than a 1982 cartoon scored by America should. Though I found Mia Farrow’s voice grating, the acting is so good that I even teared up a little during the emotional scene where an aging Molly Grue lashes out at the unicorn for visiting her now, rather than “twenty years ago? Ten years ago? …when I was new?” And Angela Lansbury ensures that the harpy scene is just as scary now as it was when I was the young girl Molly Grue longs to be.

The animation may be even more beautiful in this day and age, when computer generated graphics ensure that most animated experiences are big, loud, and in your face, than it was at the time. The animation here is subtle, full of cool blues and frightening reds, seemingly inspired alternately by Maxfield Parrish and medieval unicorn tapestries. At times, the film effectively and charmingly recalls these tapestries intentionally, and these are some of the film’s most beautiful sequences. It is no surprise to learn that Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, the producers of the film, often worked with the animation firm Topcraft on their pictures, the firm that help launch Hayao Miyazaki’s career.

The biggest surprise is America’s soundtrack.  “The Last Unicorn” and “Walking Man’s Road” somehow manage to fight off growing any of the musical moldand remain emotionally resonant. They also help the soundtrack stand out as fairly original, as they work more as rock themes than the Broadway-esque musical numbers you find in the Disney and Amblin counterparts. Beware, though, they’re just as mind-numbingly addictive as they were when you were a kid. You’ll be breaking out the hairbrush microphone and the power-ballad facial expressions as you belt out “I’m allliiiiiiiiveeee” for your stuffed animal collection.

Will Shelley still believe in unicorns? Check out the podcast below or download it here.

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5 Comments

  1. I was a huge unicorn girl, but this movie was too much for me. I really liked Brave Little Toaster, Never Ending Story, The Dark Crystal, and other dark kids films that came out around then, but for some reason this one was just too scary for me. Maybe it’s because I was such a huge unicorn girl? I haven’t seen it since I was very, very young.

    And, yep, I hate the Little Mermaid!

  2. First off, thanks for the shout-out! It’s true, Ariel gives up her voice for a vagina. Yikes.
    Second, “He was the coach on Stick It.” That had me bustin’ up.
    Third, I loved Christopher Lee in “Return from Witch Mountain”
    Fourth, this episode got me excited for our collab.

  3. My background and experience with this movie are very similar to yours, Shelley. I watched it countless times as a young child, starting when I was four or five. I even recalled it in a similar way—an adult-like story that possibly seemed too sophisticated or complicated for its intended audience. It felt like a different experience from the other glossed-over, vibrant animated offerings of the time. What else I recalled: The frightening harpy scenes, the dark tone of the characters (though, I thought of them as weird, simple and at face value as a child) and the film overall and, of course, the famously bitchin’ music.

    This time around, the viewing experience was different, but just as mesmerizing. The story was fairly straightforward, but I found a new appreciation for the characters, particularly Molly. The scene you mentioned was intensely haunting to me. I cursed myself for not trying to understand or appreciate that earlier. Irony, eh. You mentioned in the interview the beautiful scene where the unicorns appear and transform in the wave. It was….wow. The animation was simple but effective in the film—a few vibrant scenes like the wave scene and the running scenes, with the rest of the movie relying on the gloomy tone, basic mood color use and a child’s imagination. This movie had great visual beauty, in almost a….gothic way? I had no idea who most of the voice actors where as a kid. It’s quite an amazing ensemble. I still loved the music, with the exception of Mia Farrow’s screeching, and now, of course, have it stuck in my head. Damn you, America. I must say the film has held up after all these years. Also worth mentioning: You said in the podcast that the Mommy Fortuna/Harpy scene was so memorable as a child, yet seemed small and not as important now. I felt the same exact way. Weird. I also had to give more credit to Christopher Lee, especially after hearing your thoughts on him and his role. I never really thought of him as an impressionable character until this time around.

    Very nice interview, Doc. It was so nostalgic to revisit this—like find a long lost friend. I look forward to checking out your others. (Perhaps The Little Mermaid, as a companion piece?) 🙂

  4. it’s funny that you praise “NIMH” but rag on an american tail and land before time, since they were all produced and directed by the same guy, don bluth.

  5. Yeah, I knew Nimh was the Achilles heel of the argument because it WAS studio released, but by MGM, I believe?–not Amblin. But its a different animal, I believe. Like I said, I’m thinking of these 80s films aimed at a Dungeons and Dragons crowd, and I think only one of those three fits the bill. Just check out this promo poster http://www.imdb.com/media/rm883465984/tt0084649 (and when you compare that to the film’s current, very Amblinesque dvd cover, it makes you wanna cry). But honestly, I could be wrong about all three movies, I haven’s seen an of them since I was 5. But there’s only one I’d be willing to watch again.


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