Directors/Producers – Julie Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr, Screenplay – Peter S. Beagle, Based on His Novel, Music/Songs – Jimmy Webb, Songs Performed by America, Production Design – Arthur Rankin Jr. Production Company – Rankin-Bass/ITC..
Mia Farrow (The Unicorn), Alan Arkin (Schmendrick), Tammy Grimes (Molly Grue), Christopher Lee (King Haggard), Jeff Bridges (Prince Lir), Angela Lansbury (Mommy Fortuna), Keenan Wynn (Captain Cully), Rene Auberjonois (The Skull)
In a magical forest, a beautiful unicorn eavesdrops on hunters. She hears them talking as they decide to leave her alone because she is the only one of her kind left. Disconcerted at learning such, she asks a butterfly who tells her that the mysterious Red Bull has devoured all the other unicorns. She decides to set out on a quest to confront the Red Bull. She falls in with the bumbling apprentice magician Schmendrick and the cook Molly Grue. Together they travel to the kingdom of the joyless King Haggard, who conjured up the Red Bull because the sight of the unicorns made him unhappy. Forced to transform the unicorn into a human woman to hide her from Haggard and avoid the rampage of the Red Bull, Schmendrick is disturbed when he sees her starting to forget who she is.
Almost all cartoons, even seemingly those with most serious adult aspirations, have the spectre of ‘Hanna-Barberism’ to them – of characters who speak in simplistic alto voce. While no exception, The Last Unicorn is certainly it is one of the most impressive surmountings of the standard adolescent mindset of cartoons. The film was made by Julie Bass and Arthur Rankin, who were responsible for other puppet and animated children’s fare such as Willy McBean and His Magic Machine (1965), Mad Monster Party? (1967), The Hobbit (1977), The Flight of Dragons (1982) and the various Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman tv specials.
With The Last Unicorn, Rankin-Bass’s good sense here was to turn to a 1968 children’s book by Peter S. Beagle. Beagle is one of the most strongly acclaimed (if not widely read) living fantasy authors – Beagle even co-wrote Ralph Bakshi’s screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1978) – and his The Last Unicorn is regarded as a fantasy and children’s classic. Rankin-Bass wisely allow Peter S. Beagle to adapt his own novel and the result is a children’s film of beautifully melancholic power that is streets ahead of any near competition.
Peter S. Beagle’s adaptation of his own book is very good indeed – the last third of the film, with the unicorn slowly forgetting who she is and the sullen, sepulchral figure of King Haggard, achieves a uniquely melancholic adult mood unlike anything you are likely to see in any other children’s film. Beagle’s dialogue is incredibly haunting – the unicorn’s line upon becoming a human “I can feel this body dying about me – I am afraid of more than the Red Bull” and the final fadeout “Of all the unicorns, she is the only one who knows what regret is” – are pieces that linger.
The characterisations are all exceptional, particularly good being Rene Auberjonois’s appearance as the skull and the unmistakeable, rich baritone of Christopher Lee as the doleful King Haggard. The film contains images of great beauty – like the final return of the thousands of unicorns, cresting the waves out of the sea; the conjured ghosts of Robin Hood and the Merry Men passing through the bandits and the fire; or the image of the unicorn licking the tears from Molly’s face. There is also a superb musical score.
The great sense of regret that this film leaves one with is the fact that it was not a success. Originally completed in 1981, it languished in distribution limbo, being sporadically shown in various parts of the world throughout 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985. Even then, it was rarely promoted – it is almost impossible to find any reviews of it from the time it came out, for instance. All of which is a shame as The Last Unicorn is a film seriously in need of revision as a small modern fantasy and children’s classic.
A live-action remake of The Last Unicorn was announced in 2006 from director Geoff Murphy and intriguingly to feature many of the actors here – Mia Farrow, Christopher Lee, Rene Auberjonois, Angela Lansbury – reprising their original roles. Unfortunately, this appears to have vanished from any production slates and is no longer an active project.