The Last Unicorn
Based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle
Synopsis: In an everlasting green wood lives the very last unicorn in all the world. Upon finding out that she is indeed the last, the unicorn sets out on a quest to find the rest of her kind, for she is certain that they cannot all be gone. Her journey brings her into contact with humans, where she learns of the best and worst of humankind. Eventually her travels bring her into the domain of the legendary Red Bull, and she undergoes a transformation that will change her perception of the world forever.
Review: I’m never quite sure what to say about The Last Unicorn. Since this is a review, people are expecting me to say whether it’s good or bad, and if I would recommend it, but this is going to be a bit more complicated.
I’m very picky about visual presentation and aesthetic quality in visual media, and The Last Unicorn… well. The art sort of bounces back and forth from delicately detailed to, uh, bad, though some of it is just that I don’t like the way the human characters are drawn. The animation is good… for 1982. Okay, maybe the rotoscoping makes it look like all the characters are on stimulants, and the unicorn looks like she might snap in half from a stiff breeze.
The music is very… eighties. To the point that I knew it was dated even when I was little. I’ve seen people praise the voice acting, but there are only two performances I was ever interested in, and I’ll get to those later. The pacing of the movie can be very jarring, with some bizarre tonal shifts along the way– the fault of the people trying to take a book not for kids and turn it into what they believe is a children’s movie.
And that is one of the main problems with The Last Unicorn. To put it very simply, the original novel is not meant for children. I only chose to review the movie and not the book simply because it’s been years since I read the book and I just rewatched the movie this August. I think the movie gets things right– a lot of things– but it’s flawed because it just can’t replicate the source material in the mature way it deserves.
And now for the things it gets right. There is a lot going on under the jerky animation and plot that I didn’t notice as a kid but caught right away as an adult. Unicorns are my favorite fantasy creatures, and one of the reasons for that is that there are so many ways to use and interpret them. They are traditionally innocent, aloof, and magical, and this unicorn is no different, but the way she is presented and how she develops certainly is. It’s very easy to interpret the unicorn’s journey as being allegorical. (Of what, I won’t say if you haven’t seen the movie already.) The fact that this managed to stay in the movie says some good things about it. I also love that the movie kept the book’s original ending, which was not of the conventionally happy sort, as its impact would certainly have been lessened if the ending had been changed.
But The Last Unicorn’s greatest asset is its sheer emotional power.
I could sense the undercurrent of unrestrained feeling even when I was a child– there is a raw, haunting quality to the unicorn’s journey, and a bleakness that I don’t normally see in kids’ movies. I’m not talking A Game of Thrones bleak– it’s nowhere near that bad– but despite the datedness of its presentation I always find myself taking the story very seriously. This is aided by the two vocal performances that I mentioned before. The first is Mia Farrow as the unicorn, who somehow manages to stand on the line between raggedly plaintive and laughably melodramatic without crossing it (well, most of the time). The result is a voice that seems strange for a gentle and innocent unicorn, but fits more with her true personality. The second is Christopher Lee as the bitter, tortured King Haggard, a character who is much more complex than he initially appears. I don’t think I have to elaborate on that one much. Anything voiced by Saruman is automatically awesome.
The Last Unicorn brought me to tears when I first saw it, and still does to this day. Not because it’s depressing (though its tone is often bittersweet) but because I could relate to the emotions, the joy and the sadness, that the unicorn experiences as she begins to understand humanity.
Final verdict– You’ll either connect with The Last Unicorn emotionally or you won’t. If you don’t, the rest of the movie is such a mess that it really isn’t worth watching. If you do, you will love it in spite of all that. But whether you do or you don’t, check out the original book as a fantastic example of a fantasy novel.
Next Time: I gush about some of the finest television ever produced for children. And if you thought I couldn’t get any girlier than unicorns, you’re wrong.