The Last Unicorn (1982)

As we continue our occasional dips into eighties fantasy films, this afternoon we watched a celebrated animated film with a large fan base. The Last Unicorn is based on Peter S. Beagle’s very popular novel. I use these qualifiers because this is one of those movies that many, many people enjoy a whole lot more than my son and I did. We squirmed all through the exasperating thing.

Last year, we watched a Rankin/Bass film from the seventies called The Last Dinosaur. I noted then that Rankin/Bass had a long association with a variety of Japanese studios. There’s probably a really fascinating series of blog posts to be written – by people who know this stuff better than I do! – about these international co-productions, and The Last Unicorn is one of these. It was animated by a studio called Topcraft, which might have been the company that Rankin/Bass went with most often on their films and TV specials. Topcraft also collaborated with several other animation houses on all kinds of cartoons that you’ve seen like Gatchaman, Maya the Bee, and the Macross movie, though they folded in the mid-eighties.

I guess elements of this film are nicely animated, and I liked the character and setting designs, but I was constantly distracted by the intrusive music, the incredibly poor editing, and the godawful sound mix, which I understand has been addressed in more recent transfers of the movie. My wife picked up a copy of this a very long time ago and was a little disappointed that her fellas didn’t share her enjoyment of it.

There’s a little more to like, including terrific performances by Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee as villains, and the instantly-recognizable Paul Frees and Don Messick in smaller roles, but the movie starts with the double whammy of this godawful title theme, a dentist’s office dirge by the then-popular adult contemporary act America, and an endless opening scene where a deliberately annoying butterfly deflects all of the unicorn’s questions with song fragments and silly wordplay. I was fed up with this movie by the eight minute mark.

Our son lasted longer than I did, but when they get to King Haggard’s castle, the momentum this movie had just deflates. It’s interminable. He got up and wandered to the other sofa. “This is very boring,” he sighed. I hoped Paul Frees’s character would come back from wherever he teleported himself to. No, instead there was a love song. The worst, the sappiest love song ever. The climax picked things up, but couldn’t save it. It’s a decent enough story, so hopefully when his mother reads Beagle’s novel to him down the line – or when he permits her to read it to him – he’ll enjoy it a lot more.

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