Last Unicorn, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe feels an overwhelming urge to run through the streets yelling 'I'm Alive!'...
After learning that she may be the last of her kind, a lonely unicorn (Mia Farrow) sets out to discover what could’ve happened to the other unicorns. Along her journey she is captured by an evil witch named Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury), who imprisons her as part of a Midnight Carnival. That night Fortuna’s assistant Schmendrick (Alan Arkin), a second rate magician, recognizes the unicorn as real, unlike most of Fortuna’s other captives, and frees her. After their escape the duo meets up with another lost soul named Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), and discover the fate of the world’s unicorns.
There aren’t many animated features that stand the test of time, and even fewer without the Disney label. There are cult items throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, but most of these are of the ‘Adult’ variety, including Ralph Bakshi projects like Fritz the Cat, American Pop and Fire and Ice, or the even more notorious Heavy Metal. Most family friendly animated entertainment was delegated to television screens, where hundreds of under-produced toy ads would go to live and die (and occasionally be resurrected by well meaning fans years down the line). Rankin Bass studios (named after producer/director team Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass), who was best known for a series of stop motion animated holiday and fairy tale themed television specials, found minor success with an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and an ongoing series called Thunder Cats, but never really connected with wider audiences in the ‘80s, with the exception of their beloved adaptation of author Peter Beagle’s even more beloved novel The Last Unicorn. Strangely enough I have almost no childhood memories of the film, and generally avoided it as an adult out of a general dislike of most things baring the Rankin Bass logo.
Even bereft of childhood attachment, I can say with relative certainty that The Last Unicorn is Rankin Bass’ most accomplished cell work all around, though given how badly most of their films have aged this alone isn’t much of an achievement, and much of the credit belongs to Japanese outsource animators Top Craft. The physical animation is sometimes stiff, commonly recycled, and the lip-sync is consistently off, but the backgrounds feature a unique 2D artistry, especially the more graphic depictions of the Unicorn’s home early in the film, and the dry brushed interiors of the castle. More importantly, the illustrations look unlike anything produced today, and date the film in the most positive sense. Human characters are, of course, drawn in the Rankin Bass house style, but Top Craft’s growing talent and Japanese influence shines through, creating a rather unique overall look. My personal favourite representation of this exceptional design style is Mommy Fortuna, who is a mix of traditional witch imagery, and a very Miyazaki like organic influence (she’s practically a walking tree without leaves). The performances are not quite as watershed important as some fans seem to think, but for the time the cast stands apart from pretty much every non-Disney release of the ‘80s (which was really not a good time for film animation in the United States). I’m left particularly impressed with Tammy Grimes as Molly Grue, who manages to evoke both sarcastic humour and heartfelt sadness without much solid character background, or even much in the way of defining character traits.
There’s plenty to make me uncomfortable with the film watching it as an adult. Chief among these more disturbing moments are a tree that grows humongous breasts that smother Schmendrick, and anus looking mouth to propose to him. During wider shots she looks a hell of a lot like an erect penis. The harpy’s sagging breasts are an understandable grotesque element, but a full grown man obsessed with hording unicorns takes the disturbed shiver cake. Joking aside, there are some bizarre anachronisms (that Beagle verifies as deliberate on the commentary track), such as Schmendrick acting like a semi-stereotypical, nebbish Jew, or the moment when Captain Cully offers the wizard a taco. Then there’s the even more shocking matter of the Unicorn fearing her human body, diving into depression (‘I can feel this body dying all around me’), and possibly even contemplating suicide as she enters King Haggard’s castle. Sure, it’s for the kids, but the whole film drips with a (probably intended?) sense of dread. It’s not a terror-fest like Pinocchio, but there’s something deeply unnerving about the whole experience. Though these weird and dark touches ultimately define the story, especially the fervent post modern aspects that lead right up to the bittersweet ending that inverts the standby of ‘Happily Ever After’, I find it more impressive that Beagle managed to genuinely capture the feel of classic myths and ancient fairy tales as well as Tolkien, Lewis or Lucas.
I’m left ill-equipped to appropriately compare the various digital home video releases of The Last Unicorn, but can assume that the included DVD version is identical to the pervious 25th Anniversary release, and have read that the old Artisan release was pan and scan, so I can make an educated guess and say this Blu-ray is the best looking release of the film yet. That said, people should be ready to deal with a lot of film grain and some sizable print artefacts, especially cell dust. There aren’t any outstanding digital artefacts, or signs of compression, but this grain and dirt does overwhelm some sequences. This transfer was apparently culled from several different print elements, so I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a lot to do about these problems, aside from an expensive, Lucasfilm style overhaul. On the plus side, colours are quite vibrant (check out the eye-popping red of King Haggard’s cape), and detail levels are equal to the beautiful classic animation discs coming out of the Disney studio lately. Background elements do the best with the extra detail abilities, revealing a few bits that go missing on the DVD copy. The uncompressed quality helps keep these smaller elements cleaner along the edges. The colours are more vibrant than those of the DVD copy, but not by a huge margin. The scene where the Red Bull chases the Unicorn through the forest is the most impressive moment for the entire transfer, partially due to the more impressive animation (as pointed out on the commentary track), but generally this sequence is sharper and cleaner than the rest of the film, and the red and pink hues contrasted against cool blue is stunning.
Fans should be happy to know that this release includes both the censored 25th Anniversary 5.1 mix, which erases all of Molly Grue’s ‘damns’ and a Godzilla roar, and the original theatrical audio remixed into 5.1. Both tracks are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, and are generally better than expected, though not incredibly impressive. Certain simpler centered sounds, like dialogue, or the Unicorn’s whinny, aren’t entirely consistent in volume or clarity. Vocal echo effects are especially inconsistent. Rear channel and directional effects are few and far between, to the point that the ones that do show up are a bit distracting. A good example is the trip through the red bull’s cave, where dripping water continues to randomly excite the rears, and pulls the viewer’s attention away from the screen rather than creating an engrossing atmosphere. The real star of both tracks is the musical score, which includes America’s songs ‘The Last Unicorn’, ‘Man’s Road’, ‘By the Sea’, ‘Now That I am a Woman’ and ‘That’s All I Have to Say’. These songs are the one beloved aspect of the film that I can’t really get behind, but they all sound rich and warm, and feature some sharp stereo effects.
The rather impressive extras begin with a new commentary track featuring author Peter Beagle and his publisher and friend Connor Cochran. To my surprise this is one of the most satisfying commentary tracks I’ve heard in months. Cochran is incredibly well prepared, and clearly a somewhat obsessed fan of the material, and he leads Beagle well through the track. For his part Beagle is delightfully honest, and recalls the experience with sharp banter. Here we learn that Beagle was originally horrified by America’s involvement with the project, the many differences between the published book, the film, and Beagle’s original treatment (which will apparently be published soon), and that animation studio Top Craft would immediately follow up The Last Unicorn with Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Cochran even recalls the original answer to the riddle ‘why is a raven like a writing desk’.
The new extras continue with ‘Immortal Characters’ (12:50, HD) a retrospective look at the film with Cochran, Beagle, animation historian Jerry Beck, and via phone interview producer/director Jules Bass, and Christopher Lee. Discussion doesn’t overlap with the commentary too often, and when it does it comes at the information from a different angle, so the two extras make great companion pieces. Subject matter includes pre-production, scripting, casting, and characters. ‘Peter S. Beagle and His Work’ is a series of 26 factoid screens covering the author’s career. Each still screen features audio commentary from Cochran. As someone who shamefully knows basically zippo about the author this extra is plenty informative, if not a bit on the dry side. I do look forward to the colour graphic novel adaptation. The Blu-ray exclusives come to an end with a charming gallery of fan art.
‘The Tale of The Last Unicorn’ (8:30, SD) isn’t particularly valuable given the new extras, but is a decent standalone featurette that sees Beagle himself covering the story, and some of his inspirations. ‘Schmendrick’s Magical Gallery’ is an image collection with six sub categories covering inspirations, American and foreign book covers, pictures of Beagle, art inspired by The Last Unicorn (including five more sub-headings), and images from the movie’s production, some with Cochran commentary. Extras are completed with the original trailer and trailers for other Lionsgate releases.
The Last Unicorn is a wonderful story (I now plan on reading the book some day), and I really enjoyed this animated adaptation despite my lack of nostalgia attached to the material. To offset this I purposefully went out of my way to watch the film with a friend who adores the book, the film and even the cheesy America soundtrack (ahem). She recalled her typical childhood viewing experience, which mostly involved singing along to the nauseating music (cough). The part that struck me was the end of the story, where she would stop the VHS tape and rewind it before the credits finished and watch the whole film again, not because she was so obsessed she needed to see it again (though I’m sure that had some part in the equation), but because the gravity of melancholy ending needed to be eased off her little shoulders with the buoyancy of the first act. This story encapsulates the best of this flawed film – it’s innocent enough to engage a child, but intelligent enough to make her uncomfortable without depending on vulgarity (well, except for that penis tree). This Blu-ray release is pretty impressive, including an improved transfer, both the censored and uncensored audio tracks, and a series of new extras, including an outstanding commentary track.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy at Andersonvision.com for the screen-caps.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 22nd February 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English (25th Anniversary and Original Theatrical Versions)
Subtitles: English SDH and Spanish
Extras: Writer and Publisher Commentary, Immortal Characters, 2010 Art Contest Gallery, Peter S. Beagle and His Work, The Tail of the Last Unicorn, Schmendrick's Magical Gallery, Trailers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr.
Cast: Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury, Tammy Grimes, Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, Rene Auberjonois
Length: 93 minutes