Vintage Film Review: The Last Unicorn (1982)
The Last Unicorn is an animated fantasy film, based on the book of the same name by Peter S. Beagle. Beagle wrote the screenplay. The legendary production duo Rankin/Bass (Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass) produce and direct, while the renowned anime studio Topcraft animate. Topcraft is the precursor to the now legendary Studio Ghibli. All this is a means of expressing the high quality of the production.
The Last Unicorn is a compelling story with great animation sequences and fantastic music, as well as featuring some great voice talent, including Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee.
As the title suggests, The Last Unicorn tells the haunting story of the last unicorn who embarks on a journey to find out what has happened to the rest of her kind. It’s a perilous journey, full of traps and snares and near misses. She picks up some helpers along the way, finds herself transformed and nearly loses sight of her true self and her mission.
The Journey of the Last Unicorn
Creatures of magic, immortality, majesty, and innocence, unicorns know nothing of regret, shame or love. Yet, when rumors reach a lone unicorn in her enchanted forest that she is the last of her kind, she feels compelled to investigate the veracity of this. Whispered snippets tell a ferocious tale of a flaming red bull herding the unicorns to the ends of the world. Thus, begins our unicorn’s journey. She leaves the safety of her enchanted wood to enter the world of men, whose eyes are so blind to magic that they can no longer recognize her in her true form. They only see a white horse.
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On the roads of men, she falls prey to the enterprising witch, Mama Fortuna, with her traveling carnival of grotesque attractions. Trapped and put on display, she is befriended by a fellow attraction, the rather incompetent magician and would-be wizard, Schmendrick. He ultimately helps her to escape, and the two begin to travel together. They then pick up another companion, Molly Grue, after an encounter with a band of thieves.
During a sudden encounter with the fierce red bull, Schmendrick transforms the unicorn into a human in order to save her. It works, she is saved, but Schmendrick doesn’t know how to change her back. In this human form, as the lovely Lady Amalthea, she enters the lonely castle on the edge of the sea and the court of King Haggard and his dashing heir Prince Lir. Trapped in a mortal frame, the unicorn feels death for the first time in her life, feels decay and loss. And the longer she remains in human form, the more she begins to forget her true self and her purpose. Because King Haggard has some dark secrets. And Prince Lir is falling madly in love with her and she with him.
Can true love prevail? Will she remember who she is? Can Schmendrick transform her back again? Can they defeat the red bull? Are they able to find the other unicorns? Will the unicorn return to innocence?
A Classic ’80’s Allegory on Growing up and Becoming a Woman
I hadn’t seen The Last Unicorn since probably 1983. I last saw it at my friend’s birthday party, back in the day when you rented VCRs from the video store, and it was a big deal to see a film at home. So, I had only seen the film once, back when I was about seven years old. And yet, the film has stuck with me. It struck some sort of disturbing chord in my girl self. Coming back to it as a woman and a mother to my own seven-year-old daughter, I was struck again by how emotionally intense and apt it is.
The Last Unicorn is allegorical in nature, a re-telling of the ejection from Eden, of innocence lost, and of the fall from grace. The unicorn’s tale is the story of human existence, of transformation from child to adult, of the rite of passage from girl to woman, of immortal souls trapped in mortal bodies to gain experience. Innocence cannot be regained. And sometimes love means letting go. It is a hauntingly bittersweet tale that Peter S. Beagle has woven.
A Note on the Music – “I’m Alive!”
Can I just take a minute to say how beautiful the music in The Last Unicorn is? The folk-rock trio America and the London Symphony Orchestra perform original songs and scores by the multiple Grammy Award-winning songwriter, composer, singer, Jimmy Webb. I am a longtime fan of America – I had a cassette of their greatest hits in my very first car – and their renditions on this soundtrack of “The Last Unicorn” and “Man’s Road” are achingly and soaringly beautiful.
Jeff Bridges and Mia Farrow sing a couple of lovely ballads – “That’s All I Have to Say” and “Now That I’m a Woman” respectively. Their voices are unrefined, naïve, slightly out of pitch, but that makes the songs even more touching and powerful.
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But the opening sequences of The Last Unicorn really do take the cake. The iconic late 15th-century unicorn tapestries come to life through Topcraft’s animation. It is exquisite. And all the while, the haunting voices of America sing the titular song, “The Last Unicorn.” It is captivating. Keeping with the 15th-century medieval feel, many of the instrumental scores have lyres and lutes and simple flutes. Truly, it is an outstanding score, lyrically and musically, passing perfectly to a last unicorn’s magical journey into mortality, into love and experience and regret.
So, when America sings, “I’m alive!”, it’s hard not to soar and feel alive yourself.
See the film. Sing along. And it’s time for me to finally read the book!
Content Note: Rated G. There is some very minor mild swearing, as well as some brief nudity. A gruesome harpy has multiple exposed breasts, and in the unicorn’s human transformation, there is an exposed backside. None of it is sexual and all are quick glimpses. There are also some rather intense scenes – that red bull is scary!
Where to Watch: DVD, YouTube, Amazon Video…
Photo Credits: Rankin/Bass Productions.
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2 thoughts on “The Last Unicorn (1982): A Hauntingly Musical, Magical and Allegorical Animated Classic”
“You can find the others if you are brave. They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints.” I was so happy to see your review Jessica!
I recall once long ago I saw a trailer for The Last Unicorn, and those words I quoted and the image of the Red Bull behind the fleeing unicorns stayed with me for years. When I finally saw the movie I loved it. I’m always excited to talk with other fans about this story.
I think I agree with everything you said. The music is fantastic! It’s one of my favourite soundtracks. You’ve reminded me that I have not listened to it for awhile. I’ve been wanting to buy it for years. I didn’t know much about America before that movie, but they became a favourite right away when I heard these songs.
My review for the book is linked in your review. I don’t know if you had a chance to read it, but the book is excellent. The movie follows it very closely. It is masterfully done, and Peter S. Beagle’s language is beautiful and lyrical.
I have heard talk off and on of a live action version of The Last Unicorn. I’d love to see it, but it would have to be very, very well done to compare favourably with the animated version I think.
Thanks, Dixie-Ann! I’ve not read the book yet — it’s on order from the library, so I’m waiting for it to arrive (-: I’m looking forward to it. After re-watching the film after so very many years, well, I was very moved by it. Such a wonderful, thought-provoking story. As I was watching the movie, I kept thinking about how a live-action adaptation could be wonderful. They can do so much with CGI these days. But then I got concerned about the music, because I just can’t imagine anything else but that soundtrack (-: I’ve pretty much had it on repeat for the past few weeks (-: