Tag Archives: rankin/bass

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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The Last Dinosaur (1977)

“That was partly scary, partly cool, and partly I didn’t know what was going on,” announced our son after we watched the full theatrical version of The Last Dinosaur. Good thing that the Warner Archive people released that edition and not the US TV one, which has fifteen minutes cut out; he’d probably be even more confused by that.

Rankin/Bass had been working with Japanese production companies since the 1960s. While the company will always be best known for its stop-motion holiday specials that were part of every American seventies kid’s childhood, many of these featured animation done by Japanese studios. Rankin/Bass also had worked with Toei on the sixties cartoon The King Kong Show, and with Toho on an incredibly fun movie adaptation of that program, called King Kong Escapes. They also contracted with Mushi for animation for some of their TV specials, so their people knew some people when it was time for some international co-productions.

By 1975, Tsubaraya Productions was looking for new projects to diversify and become more than just the Ultraman studio. With Rankin/Bass, they found B-movie heaven. Thanks in no small part to the incompetent dub jobs by Sandy Frank’s crew, much of Tsubaraya’s seventies sci-fi output is rich in unintentional comedy, but The Last Dinosaur, along with two subsequent fantasy movies, The Bermuda Depths and The Ivory Ape, are a lot more obscure and have a little better reputation. I can’t speak for the other two, but while The Last Dinosaur may not be art, it’s certainly entertaining.

It stars Richard Boone as the world’s richest man, an industrialist and big game hunter, along with Joan Van Ark as a photojournalist, Steven Keats as a handsome scientist, and former Cavaliers backup center Luther Rackley as a Masai tracker who doesn’t have any dialogue. In a premise shamelessly pilfered from Burroughs with a hint of Verne, oil exploration has found a hidden prehistoric valley in the Arctic circle. It’s a much smaller Land That Time Forgot on the other side of the planet, with far fewer monsters.

Naturally, there’s only one tyrannosaur left, meaning they timed this exploration just right, because these things can’t have that long a lifespan. This thing is incredibly violent and lethal. After killing four of the five members of the previous expedition, the dinosaur has one from this party for lunch before taking on a triceratops in a remarkably bloody fight. By the end, the beast has my respect as well as the big game hunter’s. He’s an incredibly ruthless opponent.

Wikipedia claims that the tyrannosaur suit was reused for Tsubaraya’s idiotic cartoon/live-action hybrid TV show Dinosaur War Aizenbourg, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe the body, but they took away the great-looking head from this movie and gave the TV beast a different one. On the other hand, The Last Dinosaur‘s head is shown to be a bit more hollow than something which should have a skull in it when a catapulted boulder betrays its rubber reality.

I’ve never been a fan of Richard Boone – not even in Have Gun, Will Travel, which everybody likes more than I do – but Joan Van Ark is great in this, and I do appreciate the way the actors get incredibly muddy and disheveled in this film. The script has a couple of surprises – it’s not an overnight jaunt, like some in this genre – and an interesting ending. It does go on a bit in between dinosaur attacks, as these sort of films from the era often did, leading to a fake yawn from our favorite six year-old critic, but he came around in the end. I asked him whether he enjoys monster movies because they’re partly scary. “Yeah, and because they have monsters in them.”

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Mad Monster Party? (1967)

If you have a five year-old and don’t show them Rankin/Bass’s 1967 feature film Mad Monster Party? around Halloween, then there should be a government agency to come around your house and cite you for neglect. I’m not saying it’s a great film – it’s a good one weighed down by too many songs – but if you want to keep a kid hypnotized and giggling for 95 minutes, then you need to get a copy of this movie. It’s really fun.

I remain amazed that it isn’t better known. Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion television holiday specials are so well remembered, but this oddball movie just seemed to vanish into obscurity. It was something that you read about but never saw, until 2009, when Lionsgate put out a DVD that was available everywhere. I picked my copy up at Target the week it was released; they had a big display like it was a summer blockbuster. It’s such a charming film, flawed, but impossible to dislike.

Two big factors helped to turn this from an okay old kids’ movie into something long-lasting and memorable. The script was co-written by the immortal Harvey Kurtzman, and the characters were designed by one of my favorite artists, Jack Davis, who passed away earlier this year. It’s full of silly puns and “boys and ghouls” level humor, jokes about poison, and slapstick shenanigans like a Black Lagoon-esque fish creature and an invisible man throwing pies in each other’s faces. This is like Comedy Ground Zero for elementary school kids.

So what’s the story about? Well, on the Caribbean Isle of Evil, Baron Boris von Frankenstein finally completes his life’s work, a formula that can destroy matter with a single drop. He chooses to retire at the top of his game and hand control of the great monsters to his chosen successor, inviting most of them – all but a mysterious pest known only as “It” – to a convention at his castle. Most of the monsters conspire and plot and hope that each will be the new boss, but the baron actually plans to pass the business down to his only living relative, a half-blind soda jerk from Vermont who’s allergic to everything.

Unlike a modern children’s movie, which tries to cast everybody on the B-list for voices, the only celebrity voices involved are Boris Karloff and Phyllis Diller, who plays the bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, and they are both hilarious. The monster, incidentally, is called “Fang” for some reason. I love that. Everything about the movie oozes an effortless charm, with gags both obviously telegraphed and subtle. I wouldn’t call it timeless – there’s actually a horrible and badly dated moment where the baron’s scheming secretary falls in love with the soda jerk after he tries to smack her out of being “hysterical” – but kids love monsters like these, and they love the slapstick fun. Our kid was in heaven.

I had almost as much fun building it up as watching it. I didn’t let on that this was a stop-motion film for children or let him see the box art, but over the last week told him we were going to watch a scary movie. I gave him one last chance to back out, and said that if he gets scared, he could hold my hand. Then I asked whether, if I get scared, I could hold his. At one point about two-thirds in, a big black furball in the baron’s lab sprouts a pair of eyes and I went “eek!” My son grabbed my hand and gave me a good squeeze to make sure I was okay.

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