Last Unicorn, The (Blu-ray)
Featuring the voices of Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury
Directed by Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Distributed by The Shout! Factory
Chances are good that no matter what your age, there were a few titles you watched so many times as a kid they are beyond reproach in terms of an objective review. Even a movie you know is garbage to uninitiated adults can be sacred, untouchable. I know I’ve got a few on my list (*cough* Masters of the Universe(1987) *cough*), but one that has managed to withstand the test of removing my rose-tinted childhood viewing glasses is The Last Unicorn (1982). Based on the novel by fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle, the film was produced and directed by the animation power duo of Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, and retains the signature look emblematic of their productions. This is because Topcraft, the Japanese animation studio, hand-drew all of them. As a result the film has a graceful artistic aesthetic, which isn’t a surprise given many of the animators went on to found Studio Ghibli. And the voice cast is second to none, featuring a number of screen legends and highly respected actors.
Now, over thirty years and a couple Blu-ray editions later, Shout! Factory has seen fit to release its own edition into the wild. This new release omits most previous bonus features, adds in a few new ones, but most concerning is the video quality, which sees a drastic dip in quality. More on that later…
Deep in the enchanted forest, a unicorn (Mia Farrow) learns she is the last of her kind after hearing the conversation of a couple passing hunters. Apparently unicorns don’t keep in touch very often because it’s been years since the last one was spotted and she had no clue. Concerned, she heads out of the forest in search of her brethren. A manipulative witch, Mommy Fortuna (Angela Landsbury), comes across the sleeping unicorn one night and places her under a spell before putting her in a cage, intended to be the latest in a string of illusory attractions. Thanks to the witch’s spells, people see an old toothless lion as a manticore, or a simple snake as a giant serpent. Because only the pure of heart can see a unicorn (they look like pretty horses otherwise), Mommy Fortuna doesn’t know her true identity, and ironically enough she presents her as a unicorn. The only other “pure” creature in Mommy’s stable is a harpy, a most dangerous and immortal creature. Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) is a fledgling magician in Mommy’s employ who finally has had enough of her cruel ways. He frees the unicorn, who then frees the other animals – including the harpy – to Mommy’s misfortune.
Schmendrick and the unicorn leave together, eventually coming across a campsite where they meet Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), who joins them on the quest. The unicorn learns of the Red Bull, an animal kept by King Haggard (Christopher Lee), which he used to round up and imprison all of the unicorns. On their way to Haggard’s castle the Red Bull appears and attacks, but some quick thinking (and magic) on Schmendrick’s part turns the unicorn into a human female, causing the Red Bull to lose interest. Upon arriving at the castle Haggard is cold to his new guests, but he allows them to stay. There are few occupants, among them Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges), who takes a liking to the unicorn-woman, whom Schmendrick introduces as his niece, Amalthea. As Schmendrick and Molly search for the Red Bull’s lair, Amalthea and Lir begin a romance that causes her to forget the nature of her quest. Eventually, though, the lair is located, at which point Amalthea returns to her unicorn form and faces off against the Red Bull in a final battle by the sea.
First off, get any notion that this is a “girl movie” because it features a unicorn right out of your head. I’ve heard that charge lobbed around more than once and it simply holds no water. This is a fantastic fantasy film filled with dark moments, clearly defined characters and motivations, and top notch animation. The opening credits, in particular, freeze frame into gorgeous classic-style works of art. The unicorn is drawn elegantly, with just the right touch of beauty. My favorite character was always the Red Bull, and he’s imposing and menacing with those eternal red flames and fanged, roaring mouth. The film is replete with creatures of the forest – some real, some fictional – and the whole environment feels like an organic, cohesive universe. The humans are also convincingly realized with distinct looks.
The story is strong enough to hook in viewers, but the voice acting really brings it up to a new level. The cast is astounding: Christopher Lee, Angela Landsbury, Jeff Bridges, Mia Farrow, Paul Frees, Keenan Wynn, Rene Auberjonois, Alan Arkin. That is an incredible showing of star power. And Bridges even does a couple songs! One of which is a duet with Farrow. The only shame is no one asked Lee to belt out a tune, although judging by his recently released albums the music likely wasn’t metal enough.
Speaking of the music, composer Jimmy Webb delivers a solid score, but the real star is America’s rendition of the title song (which, to be fair, was written by Webb), which has been stuck in my head for around 25 years. “The Last Unicorn” is a folky ballad that’s not only a catchy composition, but it also serves as an introduction to the world viewers are about to enter. Good stuff.
Beagle has been trying to get a live-action adaptation of The Last Unicorn off the ground for a long, long time now. At one point both Lee and Landsbury expressed interest in reprising their roles – which they could still do – though it’s unlikely given they’re both very old. Lee just hit 93! If they could find the right director for such a project (not Peter Jackson; this doesn’t need to be a trilogy) there’s a very good chance it could be something special. If it never happens, though, that’s just fine because this animated version has remained a classic for over thirty years and I can’t see any reason why that legacy wouldn’t continue to endure.
This marks the fourth home video disc release of The Last Unicorn. First was a full frame DVD, followed by a proper widescreen DVD, then a Blu-ray edition in 2011 and now, this 1.85:1 1080p Blu-ray from Shout!. Unfortunately, the image has regressed in terms of quality and clarity. Whereas the 2011 release from Lionsgate retained a filmic appearance, this new edition is riddled with DNR, giving the picture a smooth, “clean”, smeared appearance. Fine details and line work have been scrubbed away to make the picture look cleaner, more vibrant. Grain is poorly resolved, looking more like a static field than a natural part of the image. This is similar to what Disney has been doing to many of its classic titles. Rather than present a restored image some studios are opting to strip away grain and detail so these older titles look closer to new digital imagery. It’s a foolish choice. This transfer was taken from, I believe, a German master that Beagle & co. have been touring the world using. Shout! may not be at fault for dropping the ball here, though in the end the product is still theirs and it’s troubling no one thought the image would be viewed as anything but compromised. On the flip side, colors do look vibrant and generously saturated. The opening in the enchanted forest features a kaleidoscope of hues that leap off the screen. Contrast holds stable and black levels are spot-on, too.
Thankfully, there isn’t much to complain about regarding the film’s English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. There’s a nice depth to the track, with sounds of the forest layered densely among the score and dialogue. Rears are used effectively to bolster the soundtrack at the right moments. If I’m not mistaken, when Prince Lir is fighting the dragon, Godzilla’s roar can be faintly heard. Fans will also be happy to hear the audio is uncensored, with every “damn” left intact. There is also an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track. Subtitles are available in English.
There’s an all-new audio commentary on this disc, this one featuring author Peter S. Beagle, associate producer Michael Chase Walker, Connor Cochran, Terri Kempton, and Travis Ashmore. Despite the wealth of participants no one person is fighting for talk time, plus since Beagle is the one with most of the information he does most of the talking. This is an easy, relaxed track and it’s great to hear recollections now that the film has aged so well.
“True Magic: The Story of The Last Unicorn” is an in-depth piece that starts off with Beagle recounting how he came up with the story idea, its evolution, and eventually his completion of the project. Then, once studios got interested the film went down a number of potential avenues before resting at Rankin & Bass… which is exactly where Beagle didn’t want it! All bases are covered in this solid piece.
“Highlights from The Last Unicorn Worldwide Screening Tour with Peter S. Beagle”. After explaining the tour’s genesis, success and showing off the long lines to attend one of the events, there’s a nice Q&A session with Beagle before one of the screenings begins.
Animated storyboards and the film’s trailer finish off the extra features. Also included is a DVD copy of the feature, along with a digital copy code for redemption.
- NEW audio commentary with author Peter S. Beagle, associate producer Michael Chase Walker, Connor Cochran, Terri Kempton, and Travis Ashmore
- True Magic: The Story of The Last Unicorn
- Highlights from The Last Unicorn Worldwide Screening Tour with Peter S. Beagle
- Animated storyboards
- Original trailer