It’s a dangerous thing, revisiting your favorite movies from childhood. It’s an even more dangerous thing to revisit those movies in a room filled with 20 other people. So I commend the poor soul who decided to show her favorite movie from childhood, the 1982 animated feature The Last Unicorn, at Movie Klub. But I don’t commend the movie. Like a lot of stuff that I liked in my own childhood, it doesn’t hold up.
Mia Farrow is the voice of – you guessed it – the last unicorn in the world. She doesn’t understand where all the other unicorns went, so she heads out on a quest to find them. As you might expect, she picks up friends along the way: hapless magician Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) and scullery maid Molly (Tammy Grimes). Eventually the quest centers on the castle of King Haggard (Christopher Lee) and his son Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges, being very un-Dude).
That story, adapted by Peter Beagle from his successful fantasy novel, is just fine. It has a decent mix of bright optimism and scary dark stuff that all good children’s stories have. The dialogue, though, is something else entirely. It seems almost entirely written for a maximum age of eight, relying upon dishwater-dull exposition where characters announce things that they and we already know in the way that no one ever does. It tries to inject whimsy but mostly it just comes off as inexplicable nonsense; during a key scene the line “books written by rabbits” gets thrown around, apropos of absolutely nothing. Wha?
The Japanese animation mostly suffers from the fact that Disney was still employing most of the best animators in the world at the time. A lot of the characters in the movie look fantastic when they’re standing still, but not so much once they’re put in motion. The action sequences are slow and clumsy, and some of the creatures are inexplicably goofy – try not to laugh when a tree transforms into an enormous-breasted woman, I dare you. Still, The Last Unicorn looks great compared to some other non-Disney efforts of the time, such as the animated Lord of the Rings (which, coincidentally, Beagle also wrote).
I was very surprised with how dark this film is. You don’t expect a scene in which Arkin jokes about being a “second-rate pickpocket” to end with the grisly death of a character (well, “grisly” by the standards of G-rated kids’ movies). The word “kill” gets thrown around a lot, which would become a no-no in the kids’ television of the ’80s; there’s a reason Cobra Commander and Skeletor were always screaming for the heroes to be “destroyed.” The movie also gives itself a few chances to get even darker, but it seems to back away from them, maybe afraid of scaring too many children.
My biggest complaint was with the music, most of which was written and performed by the band America. I’ve never had reason to utter the phrase “I hate America” before I saw this movie. The film also decides to give a song each to Farrow and Bridges, which it definitely should not have done. There’s no way to sugarcoat it; they’re both bad. To be fair, the film’s Wikipedia page suggests that there are versions of this movie available on video where someone else sang in Farrow’s stead, so maybe we saw one of those. Bridges, though, has no excuse.
If I had to praise one area of this movie, it would be the supporting cast’s voice acting. Grimes, a Broadway legend who has done very little work in other media, dominates every scene she’s in, running over Arkin and Farrow’s mostly flat line readings. Lee is simply peerless; fans of his more recent work should take note that by the time he appeared in The Last Unicorn he was already more than 30 years into his career(!). I also liked Angela Lansbury’s unmistakable voice in the role of a cruel witch. The filmmakers seemed to know that they struck it rich in getting Lansbury and Lee, as both of those characters are badly over-written, but with voices like that, it’s still a lot of fun.
I also want to draw attention to the film’s final scene, which was genuinely powerful. Early in the movie we are told that unicorns are incapable of regret, which sounds like just another nonsensical line in a movie full of them. But the last scene calls back to it in a very affecting way, and features the only voice work from Arkin and Farrow that I liked in the entire film. This movie has a lot of problems, and as a whole it was impossible to take seriously, but that scene highlights its sincerity and imagination. Those are two things which can cause even the most ill-advised kids’ pictures to endure.
Reviewed by Mark Young