THE LAST UNICORN
25th Anniversary Edition
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Mia Farrow, Alan
Arkin, Tammy Grimes, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee, Jeff Bridges, Rene
Director: Arthur Rankin Jr., Jules Bass
Audio: English 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, 16:9 anamorphic widescreen
Features: "The Tail of the Last Unicorn" featurette, "Escape the Red Bull" game, "Schmendrick's Magical Gallery" photos, "About Peter S. Beagle" audios, trailers
Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: February 6, 2007
the last eagle flies over the last crumbling mountain,
And the last lion roars at the last dusty fountain,
In the shadow of the forest though she may be old and worn,
They will stare unbelieving at the last unicorn."
Film *** 1/2
The ancients Greeks had a legend about the rearing of their newborn god Zeus. In his infancy on the island Crete, Zeus was nursed by a goat belonging to one of the Naiads, Amalthea (in some versions of the myth, the goat was actually Amalthea herself.). One day, Zeus broke off a horn from the goat's head, the animal thus becoming uni-horned. From the horn that had been broken spilled forth a bounty of plentiful food which helped to further sustain the young god. To show his gratitude, Zeus in his later maturity bestowed upon the broken horn the title of Cornucopia ("the horn of plenty") and honored Amalthea with a place among the stars of the night sky.
Inspired by these ancient tales, the notion evolved during medieval times that the horn of a unicorn possessed magical and curative powers. The unicorn thus became a very much sought-after creature, albeit one that remained secretive and fiercely protective of its freedom. Common belief held that only the pure heart of a virgin could entice a unicorn out of hiding, or that a unicorn detained in captivity, immortal though it may be, would inevitably die of despair.
This fascination with unicorns has persisted for hundreds of years. In western culture, the unicorn has come to represent purity and grace and perhaps a reflection of innocence lost. Even if today they are considered only the mythology of less enlightened times, their power to stir the imagination of people has not greatly diminished. In 1968, fantasy author Peter Beagle drew upon the allure of the unicorn to write what would eventually become the most popular novel ever about these mythical creatures, The Last Unicorn. A mesmerizing yet poignant tale, it focused upon the twilight of a more magical age, when fantastical creatures of lore still fleetingly roamed the earth. One such creature, the sole unicorn of a forest dale, has learned of the evanescence of her kind. Having dwelled in her solitary forest home since before the dawn of memory, the immortal creature is saddened by the knowledge that she is perhaps the last unicorn in all the world. She leaves her forest to embark upon a search for the truth and her kin, if any still remain.
The Last Unicorn dealt with themes of friendship and loyalty. While the novel's unicorn was by nature a very shy creature, the completion of her quest depended upon her ability to trust the benevolence of her human companions. The surprising mature and sometimes ironic nature of Beagle's timeless tale captivated many readers, and the novel has subsequently remained in continuous print since its initial publication.
In 1982, an animated version of The Last Unicorn arrived in theaters. Faithfully derived from the novel, it also left a haunting and lasting impression upon the minds of those fortunate enough to experience it then. The film was an international effort, drawn by Japanese animators and produced by Raskin-Bass (best known for their Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV specials and the animated versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King). It also featured a screenplay written by Peter Beagle that carefully preserved the spirit and texture of his novel.
The Last Unicorn is set in a bygone era of dying magic, when whispers of enchantment and mythology barely linger upon the lips of men. Belief in magic has slowly faded away, and where once men might readily recognize a unicorn by sight, now all they see is a field mare or a goat. So it is with one unicorn, living alone in her mysterious and ageless forest. As with all unicorns, she is immortal and content to pass her days in eternal solitude.
One morning, this unicorn's peace is disturbed by the voices of passing travelers. The strangers debate over whether unicorns exist any longer in the world. Certainly, the forest's strange enchantment, where spring blooms eternal, seems to bear witness to the presence of a unicorn. Could this forest then be home to one final unicorn? Long since have the reigns of three kings passed with nary a rumor of unicorns. Still, one of the travelers remarks, "I tell you, there is one unicorn left in the world." The travelers ride away, their voices and musings fading into the wind, and the unicorn emerges from hiding, disturbed by the revelation that perhaps she truly is the last of her brethren.
Soon thereafter, a wise butterfly flutters into her meadows. The unicorn questions the little wanderer of its knowledge about the fate of the unicorns, and the butterfly's poetic, stream-of-consciousness musings reveal an ominous tiding: "They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them..." Confronted by such news, the unicorn decides to do what few of her kind have ever dared - she abandons the immortal safety of her glen to journey abroad and to seek out the truth for herself.
The unicorn travels very far from home. She is even captured at one point but is rescued by the bumbling Schmendrick, a mediocre but good-natured spellcaster who longs to become a true magician someday. In him is exemplified the waning spirit of belief in the land, of perhaps an approaching age of reason that will soon choose to deny the existence of magic and myth. Schmendrick is also the only man to see the unicorn for who she truly is, and in recognizing her true nature, he decides to accompany the unicorn on her quest. A third companion will join them - Molly Grue, a hardened and world-weary traveler who once dreamt in her distant youth of meeting a unicorn. Molly senses a bitter irony in the fact that now, when she is old and gray and no longer a maiden, she should at last find her unicorn.
The unicorn's journey will course through meadows and mountains, through the cold snows of winter back to the rains of spring again. Together, the unicorn and her two companions each search for a personal truth, attempting to recover or to gain a missing quintessence in their lives. The journey draws them eventually to a mysterious kingdom where the Red Bull is rumored to dwell. It is here that their first encounter with the Red Bull will alter the unicorn's destiny, for Schmendrick, in order to save the unicorn from the wrath of the charging Red Bull, transforms her into a young girl.
The unicorn, trapped in a mortal guise, no longer interests the Red Bull, which abandons the chase and wanders away. But while Schmendrick has temporarily saved her, it is beyond his skills to transform the girl back into a unicorn. She assumes the new name of Lady Amalthea, yet for an immortal creature such as a unicorn, it is a terrible fate to be able to sense one's dying flesh, to feel the misery or longings that are of the realm of the human soul. Unless she returns soon to her true form, she will forget the nature of her true past and will live and die as a mortal. Amalthea's passing would then signify an end to the age of magic and wonders, for if unicorns are no more, than where is there true magic any more in the world?
The Last Unicorn's mythical structure provides a good example of the archetypal hero journey. As with all such journeys, the crucial theme is one of transformation - the hero must somehow become changed for the better by all the experiences of the quest. The classic journey is divided into a departure, an initiation, and a return. In the departure, there is usually an inciting incident or a "call to adventure" (in this case, the butterfly's accounts), further reinforced by a sense of need or deficiency in the hero's character, that compels the hero to journey forward. The "call to adventure" signals the commencement of the adventure, in which the hero must leave the safety of home to risk the hostile perils ahead, many of which may be determined by the hero's own failings. The hero will inevitably arrive at a "crossing of the threshold," wandering into the unknown (usually with the companionship of helpers or magical friends), to be followed by a symbolic entry into the "belly of the beast." For the film, it is the unicorn's metamorphosis into a mortal girl and her consequent arrival into the court of the mysterious King Haggard.
The initiation phase confronts the hero with a set of trials, each with an archetypal goal. The unicorn's ultimate trial is a conquest of death; she must face her own doubts about her self-worth and face her own mortality. The final battle culminates in a confrontation with the adversary (ie., the Red Bull or more ominously, its true master). The trials ultimately effect a profound change in the hero and usually bestow the gift of wisdom or a mystical boon. For the unicorn/Lady Amalthea, it is the gift of human experience: "Of all unicorns, she is the only one to know what regret is...and love." The final stage is the return, wherein the transformed hero must choose a final destiny, whether to return home or to travel further outwards.
The Last Unicorn most comfortably fits into the narrative mold of the tragic hero journey, although there are elements of the ironic, romantic, and comedic journey to it as well. Unusual for a children's film, The Last Unicorn does not shy away from issues of death or despair. It is in many ways a tale about loss, whether it be the loss of innocence, loss of freedom, or even a loss of life (or the will to live).
The film itself boasts a very solid cast of voice actors. Mia Farrow provides the voice for the unicorn and Lady Amalthea. Her co-stars include Alan Arkin as the magician Schmendrick and Tammy Grimes as Molly Grue. Angela Lansbury voices the elderly witch Mother Fortuna, while Christopher Lee lends his deep baritone voice to King Haggard. Considering the independent nature of the film's production, its cast is quite impressive!
The film's artistic look is quite noteworthy, too. The animation possesses a clear Japanese-anime influence and looks significantly different from a typical Disney-animated film. In fact, the animators who worked on The Last Unicorn later formed the core of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli (known in America for Princess Mononoke and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away). While the animation style is somewhat rough in quality and lacks Disney's sheen and polish, it serves the storyline fairly well and even succeeds at times in evoking old Renaissance paintings or tapestries.
Since this DVD of The Last Unicorn is being marketed as a children's film, it raises the question - is there anything too intense in this film for children? Well, not really. There is a non-graphic Harpy attack and a couple of sequences involving the Red Bull, but nothing that would push this film beyond its G rating, in my estimate. Most children will probably enjoy the film for its surface story. Yet, somewhere in their subconscious, they will surely register the film's poignancy and its archetypal themes, many of which have been faithfully adapted from the original prose. It is for this reason that The Last Unicorn possesses a timeless resonance which so few animated films have. It is for this very reason that the film and the novel have enjoyed such a huge following over the years, as admiring fans who reminisce over The Last Unicorn from their childhood years revisit the story to re-discover its richness of character and heartfelt emotional core.
The Last Unicorn is a remainder of the purity of the animated form, that an animated film need not be overly concerned with action sequences, music showstoppers, or endless computer graphics in lieu of an actual plot to be a truly good film. The strength of The Last Unicorn lies in its story, which is why many years from now, when the latest fads in animation have faded into obsolescence, The Last Unicorn will still wield its considerable ability to move audiences.
This 25th Anniversary Edition of The Last Unicorn replaces a prior full-frame release. The former release suffered from a soft and grainy transfer off a worn-out print. There were color bleeding issues and also an overall muddy, faded appearance. Fortunately, these problems have been rectified or eliminated, and The Last Unicorn finally sports a detailed new transfer (made from the digitally-remastered German edition of the DVD) in an anamorphic widescreen format. The picture quality is not perfect, but it is a tremendous improvement over the previous NTSC release.
There is a choice here between a 2.0 stereo mix or a new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Both are adequate and clean of hiss. However, since the German edition used the PAL format, there is an unavoidable PAL-to-NTSC mastering 4% speed up, which shifts the pitch slightly as compared to the previous DVD edition.
The Last Unicorn boasts some tranquil musical numbers, some performed by the musical group America and others by the cast itself. The songs generally have a somber and occasionally depressing tone which actually complements the film quite well. Noteworthy songs include the film's touching but bittersweet theme song, performed by America, and Mia Farrow's rendition of "Now That I'm a Woman" and her duet with Jeff Bridges.
I should point out that a few choice words and perhaps even a few frames have been edited out of this edition. These minor changes will seem irrelevant to audiences who have never seen the film before, but purists will surely bristle at such tampering designed to placate a family audience (and to maintain a G rating). To The Last Unicorn lovers, bear this in mind before ditching your previous DVD.
Features * 1/2
The disc opens with trailers for the CG-animated Happily Never After and various Doodlebops and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles discs. Unless your age can be counted upon ten fingers or less, avoid these trailers or risk losing some IQ points. At least the menu pages for this disc are elegant and sweetly-imagined, and the cover art is vastly improved!
"The Tail of the Last Unicorn" (8 min.) is a brief featurette in which author Peter S. Beagle describes his original concept for his unicorn tale. He also discusses how the novel (and film) have affected people over the years. The best portion of this featurette is an offering of gorgeous, fan-inspired artwork about the story.
"Escape the Red Bull" is a Q&A game about the movie. It features brief clips from the film. Answer any five questions correctly to win, or answer any five questions incorrectly to lose. The questions change with each game.
"Schmendrick's Magical Gallery" is a photo gallery of nineteen selections, including cover art, screenshots, and photos of author Peter S. Beagle.
Lastly, there is a trailer for The Last Unicorn and an audio-only section about Peter S. Beagle. This section contains six short segments (6 minutes total) encompassing an overview of the author's life, his written works and hobbies, and even an early draft of The Last Unicorn.
Real magic exists in The Last Unicorn, a surprisingly mature and haunting animated film. I'm thrilled that this film has finally been re-released in a widescreen format, although the special features are still a bit lacking. Nevertheless, this is a highly recommended disc for general family viewing!