Deneb does The Last Unicorn

the_last_unicorn_poster“My lady, I am a hero, and heroes know that things must happen when it is time for them to happen. A quest may not simply be abandoned; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.”

The Scoop: 1982 G, directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. and starring Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Tammy Grimes, Angela Lansbury, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, Brother Theodore, Robert Klein and Rene Auberjenois.

Tagline: There’s Magic in Believing!

Summary Capsule: A unicorn seeks to discover the whereabouts of the rest of her kind. Tragedy and adventure follow.

denebbannerDeneb’s Rating: Not bad. Not… half bad.

Deneb’s Review: Prior to reviewing this movie, I had only seen it once, but I remembered it.

This may not sound so terribly impressive, but consider the context – I was… well actually, I can’t remember how old I was, save that it was somewhere in the single digits. There are plenty of films I saw back then that I also remember, of course, but usually not in any particular detail – a few lingering impressions that will set lights blinking in my mind if I see them again, but overall not much. Without repetition, little lingers.

But I remembered The Last Unicorn. Not everything, but enough. I remembered the songs, I remembered the imagery, I remembered the voices, even, barely garbled by time, speaking specific lines and giving specific impressions. They stuck with me, and at odd times would bubble to the surface and prick my recollection.

Mind you, this may have been helped – in fact, it almost certainly was – by the fact that I own the original book (actually, I own two copies of it, one on its own, one in anthology form). As a result, I have the story’s framework in my head, and that does tend to help retain such things as visuals and, eh… audibles. Still, it is a testament to the film’s staying power that it has dawdled in the front hall of my memory for so long, scuffing its feet and making polite noises but never actually leaving – and as it is a welcome guest, I was glad to once again take it by the elbow and usher it back into the living room. It’s been nice to see it again.

The Last Unicorn is set in a time and place that could be best described as long ago and far away. In an isolated forest lives a unicorn (Mia Farrow). She is happy doing what unicorns do, keeping her home safe from harm – until one day, a pair of hunters strays into her forest.

There is nothing so unusual about that; hunters will go into woods, after all. Indeed, there is nothing strange about them at all, except for something that one of them says to the other before they leave. He says that this must be a unicorn’s forest, and if so, it is a rare thing indeed. For unicorns have all gone from the world – if there is a unicorn here, she is most likely the last.

This the unicorn hears, and it startles her, to say the least. The last? How can she be the last? Unicorns are magical, immortal beings; they live forever unless they are killed – how is it possible that all others of her race have vanished?

The only clue she has comes from a passing butterfly (Robert Klein), who doesn’t know where the others have gone, but knows what took them. He claims they were driven off by something called the Red Bull. If she can find this Bull, she may be able to bring them back.

So off into the world she goes, leaving her forest to find her kind. Many perils and obstacles come her way – she must face the dastardly Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury) and her traveling carnival, outwit a band of outlaws, and ultimately come up against the stern and forbidding King Haggard (Christopher Lee).

Fortunately, she is not alone in this. She finds an ally in the loyal Schmendrick (Alan Arkin), a wandering magician who wants nothing more in the world than to be a talented worker of magic, but… isn’t quite there yet. They are joined by Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), a woman who, like many, has been waiting all her life to see a unicorn, and isn’t about to let this one go without aid.

In Haggard’s cold and lonely castle, the three may find what they seek. But even if the unicorn finds the Red Bull, how can she overcome a creature that has managed to defeat countless others of her kind? And whether or not she does, she will have been changed in the process – perhaps forever…

The Last Unicorn seems to be one of those films that not everyone has seen, but that is almost universally beloved among those who have. It falls into the category of ‘cult movie as unsung masterpiece’ rather than ‘cult movie as flawed gem’. In reality, of course, most fall somewhere in-between, and Last Unicorn is no exception, but there’s no denying that it fits more into the former category than the latter. It is, in short, good stuff.

First, however, let us take a quick gander at what it doesn’t do right – or, if you’d prefer, what it could have done better. TLU, as mentioned above, is an adaptation of a book by Peter S. Beagle. The book is fantastic; it’s one of those masterpieces that wind up launching and defining an author’s career – and Beagle is a talented writer, so that’s saying something. If you haven’t read it, you should.

The movie, therefore, had a lot to live up to, and while it overall does a terrific job, there are those certain, inevitable problems that arise when a story is translated from one medium to another. The book is not particularly long, but there are subtleties to it that just can’t be captured in a 93-minute cartoon. Character-defining bits of backstory were excised, along with certain scenes that added to the mood, but not the story. And speaking of the mood, it, too, is somewhat different – the poetry of the original was definitely captured, but not all of its lighter moments. The Last Unicorn is actually quite a funny, even a satirical book in parts, due mainly to Beagle’s grasp of the language and wry wit; it would be unreasonable to expect an adaptation to capture such subtleties, but… well, nonetheless, it doesn’t. (Although, to be fair, the film can be quite funny at times, just in a different way.)

Furthermore, there are certain scenes that were kept that, in the book, more or less hinged on the aforementioned subtleties, were held up and buoyed by them, and therefore made stronger. As mentioned, these subtleties were not, could not be in the movie, and as a result, the scenes suffer – not much, very little in fact, but they do. The final confrontation with the Bull, for instance, is good, but not as good as it could have been. As is, it seems a trifle easy, not a hard-won fight at a hard-reached conclusion. It should have been stretched out somewhat, made a bit weightier.

These are none of them dealbreakers, but they are there. Do not expect a film with no flaws – it has few flaws, but I would be remiss in my duty as a reviewer if I were to leave them un-pointed out.

Really, though, these are very minor quibbles – after all, Beagle wrote the screenplay himself, so who are we to question how a writer adapts his own work? By the standards of such things, you could do much, much worse.

So all right then, it’s good. What’s good about it?

In all honesty, I don’t know. Or rather, I know, but it’s difficult to put into words. I don’t know how to put it, is perhaps what I should have said.

Mind you, there are a number of very concrete things that are good about Last Unicorn, and I shall take care to list them as I always do. The characters, the story, the animation – all are good. There is no ambiguity about these.

But what is that special something about it? Why am I dithering so when the question comes up? Why do I hesitate over such a small thing?

Well…

Let me put it this way. There are two classes of ‘special’ films. There are those that are special because they evoke memories and/or nostalgia, are identified with a certain time in your life, etc. – in other words, personal favorites; ones that are special to you, if no one else. And then there are those that are special simply because they are.

This is a tenuous quality for a film to have, and like every other, it is not universal. Some will feel it, others not. I could go on and on about the shuddering, melancholy joy that Last Unicorn intermittently evokes in me, and each word would be true and from the heart, but they would be words wasted, because I plainly and simply have no way to tell whether the same will be invoked in you. What for some is a revelation, others will wave off with a ‘meh’, and vice-versa – how on Earth am I to tell who is reading this, and who may connect with what I am describing? Goodness knows my opinions have clashed with others before, so what’s the answer – how do you fling the windows wide and announce to the world at the top of your lungs: ‘this – yes, this – is what you will feel, clear and sweet as pure reason! Rejoice! Rejoice, for the universal connection has been found! Huzzah, fireworks and dancing in the streets; fairgrounds and picnics and parades! Huzzah!’

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Shame it’s only a fantasy.

Oh well. Last Unicorn is only a fantasy, too, but I know how I feel about it, if no one else. So I guess I’ll just talk about the usual stuff, and let you people make up your minds how you feel about it.

Let’s start with the music. The songs in LU are one of its more divisive elements – a fair amount of people really aren’t too fond of them, and don’t think they fit into the movie. They accuse them, basically, of being cheesy ‘80’s pop shoehorned in for the sake of a soundtrack album.

I can kind of see where they’re coming from, in that the music is, taken on the whole, a bit on the cheesy side. Personally though, I think it’s that serendipitous variety of cheesy that actually does work with the material, even if something more traditional might seem like a better fit. The opening song, for instance, may err on the bombastic and ridiculous side when looked at in terms of its arrangement, but it sets the tone very well, and the lyrics are both memorable and appropriate to the overall mood – and I could say the same for most of the others.

Really, I think one of the main gripes people have about the music is that it’s dated, and doesn’t have that timeless quality that people look for in their movie melodies. Well, tough toenails. So the music is very much of its era – so what? If you’re going into a fantasy flick with your music snob hat on, then you’ve got your priorities crossed. I won’t pretend that my opinion is universal here, and if you don’t like Last Unicorn’s music, fine, but personally I think it would be a very different movie without its soundtrack, and probably not a better one. It is what it is, accept it or not.

Next come the visuals, the animation and overall design work. They’re pretty darn strong here – you remember my praise of the same sort of thing in my Hobbit review? Well, this was made by the same crew, and honestly, I’d say it’s even better. They have a much broader and more vibrant range of colors to work with (especially blue. It’s an odd thing to say, but hot dang, does this film know how to use blue), and their character design is as good as ever – every single character in this film is easily identifiable simply by their silhouette. If you reenacted the story via shadow puppetry using the film’s designs, anyone would be able to identify the characters without you saying a word. Schmendrick’s baggy sleeves and tall hat, Mommy Fortuna’s hunched form and headdress, King Haggard’s craggy features, the unicorn herself – they all pop out at you. Meanwhile, the backgrounds are beautiful, with a tapestry-like feel to some of them that suits the fantastic nature of things very well. You could pause this movie at any point, and there’s a fair chance what you’d stop on would be pretty enough to print up and put on your wall.

Finally, there’s the characters – and this is definitely a ‘last but not least’ scenario here, because LU is nothing if not a character-driven movie. The depths of some have out of necessity been shallowed down a bit in the adaptation, but there’s still plenty to spare – every single main player in this movie has a full set of believable traits and attributes, ambitions, etc. When you consider how many movies, even some quite good ones, feature a smattering of well-rounded characters surrounded by a group of two-dimensional stereotypes, this is an impressive achievement.

First, we have the unicorn herself. She was an interesting choice for a main character, as such are generally intended as some sort of audience surrogate, and she is most definitively not that. She is, by her very nature, set apart. One can relate to her plight, and without going into spoiler territory let’s just say that it becomes much more poignant as the story goes along, but she’s a unicorn, a creature of legend, immortal, beautiful, uncorrupted by time or care. It is this very remoteness that makes her so interesting – many characters out there are criticized as being ‘Mary Sues’, written as too perfect to be true, and are therefore uninteresting. In the unicorn, we have one of the few characters who must be a little too perfect, because it is this very aspect of her that drives the story – unless she and her kind are so wondrous that they bring awe and magic to the world, why would Haggard want them? And if her perfection becomes muddied by the harsh road she must walk, then is she truly a unicorn anymore – and if not, what is she?

The ‘everyman’ role is instead filled by Schmendrick, who to my mind is one of the more memorable such roles in animation, and in some ways the movie’s true protagonist. He has the seeds of greatness in him; he can do genuine magic, but he is, by his own admission, a second-rater, a bumbler and a bluffer. It is his recognition of these flaws in himself that drives his story – he so desperately wants to change, to achieve the true mastery that is almost within his grasp, but it has so far eluded him in a most frustrating manner. Arguably it is his choosing to help the unicorn, to do something selfless, that finally starts the ball rolling, as it were, and how he handles this long-awaited breakthrough (hint – not always with grace) is a fair chunk of what makes him so noteworthy.

The final two heroes (well, excluding minor side characters) are Molly Grue and Prince Lir, the King’s son. Molly does not have as much direct impact on the plot as the others, but she’s quite a strong character, and rather a unique one as these sorts of movies go. She’s not old, but she’s not young either; she’s in the first flush of impending middle age, and feeling it. As such, helping the unicorn means quite a lot – she’s at a point in her life where she’s seen too much hardship and disappointment, and preserving what is good in the world, its wonders and magical elements, is very important to her. She’s feisty and prickly, but her heart is kind, and she’s got a practical nature to her that balances out her companions’ more up-in-the-air qualities. She’s pretty cool.

As for Lir, well… I can’t really say too much about him without getting into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that he is the most traditional hero in the movie, despite (or perhaps, to some degree, because of) his father, and while the story is not really about him to any great degree, he ultimately does have a fairly strong impact on it. He’s not a terribly unique sort of character, but a good one – he may be archetypal, but as in the case of Schmendrick, he knows he is, and is prepared to go through life accordingly, which makes him interesting.

Which brings us, of course, to the villains, Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard. A particularly strong couple of evildoers they are, too – Fortuna is, of necessity, the minor one, but she could have carried the whole movie had the story been a little different. Both are interesting in that, while they are genuinely bad people doing bad things, they have very strong and believable reasons for doing so.

Mommy Fortuna is driven, similarly to Schmendrick, by a need to prove herself – the difference is that A: she’s an evil witch, and B: when we meet her, she already has done so, if only to her own satisfaction; her downfall, which she both realizes and accepts with a terrible sort of joy, comes in her need to keep proving herself, to push her boundaries until, inevitably, they are sundered. Her great weakness is pride, fragile pride that must be constantly reinforced, even at the cost of everything else.

The King’s drive, on the other hand, is in a certain sense much more universal. Haggard is a man who never laughs, whose world is grey and grim and holds no certainties except the inevitable downfall of all he sees. He seeks what we all do, happiness – in his case, however, happiness comes solely from acquisition, specifically acquisition of unicorns. He must own them; he must keep them and hold them in place. He has spent a long and weary life doing exactly that, and it has brought him no joy except for that one thing. He merely seeks what is generally viewed as the most basic of human rights, but his obsession is a dangerous exaggeration of that – he seeks to strip the world of something wonderful merely so that he alone can have it. Haggard is an effective villain due in large part to the fact that we see ourselves in him – he is a warning of what happens when our need for satisfaction in life is stretched too far.

Also, while he is not precisely a ‘character’ by the strict definition of the term, one cannot talk about TLU without discussing the Red Bull. The Bull is not exactly a villain so much as he is a primal, physical force, a nigh-unstoppable engine of might. We never find out just what he actually is or how Haggard came to control him, but this doesn’t matter – his function in the story is as the unbeatable foe that the Unicorn must beat, or join her fellows in an eternity as the King’s possessions. How she does so is what drives her story (and, as mentioned earlier, the fact that it ultimately seems too easy is one of its few flaws).

You may have noticed that I have not followed my usual practice of lauding individual performances while talking about the characters; that is because we have a very good cast here, and each and every one of them manages to disappear completely into their role. I will, however, take note of a few stand-outs – Angela Lansbury does quite a memorable job in one of her rare villainous roles; Alan Arkin makes for a likable everyman type; Tammy Grimes has a wonderful voice that is well-used as Molly Grue; while Jeff Bridges doesn’t have much to do, he is surprisingly good as Lir, and then, of course, there’s Christopher Lee as King Haggard. Lee, as usual, gives a bravura performance, really nailing the character’s depressive villainy; you can feel every dour, heavy syllable grating into place like a stone door. As for the Unicorn, Mia Farrow makes her her own.

So, wrapping up – clearly, I don’t need to tell you at this point that I think The Last Unicorn is a bit of all right. Is it better than the novel? Well, no, but it comes close to equaling it, which is no mean feat. I can’t recommend it to everyone – if you don’t like fantasy, this probably won’t change your mind about it – but I heartily do so anyway. It is a beautiful, melancholy love letter to the fantastical that has captured people’s hearts since it first came out, and no doubt will keep doing so for many years to come.

And whether or not they do, I will continue to remember it. I will continue to do so for a very long time.

Although Schmendrick may have been lacking in many respects when it came to his magic and so forth, there was one thing you COULD say about him - the man liked oranges.

Although Schmendrick may have been lacking in many respects when it came to his magic and so forth, there was one thing you COULD say about him – the man liked oranges.

Intermission!

  • The soundtrack album was one of the German top sellers of 1983.
  • Christopher Lee was a fan of the novel, and showed up to the recording studio with his copy, which had been carefully marked with the bits that he thought were important to leave in. (He has also stated that he would gladly revisit the role of Haggard were there to be a live-action Last Unicorn.)
  • The term ‘Schmendrick’ means something like ‘fool’ or ‘bumbler’ in Yiddish. The name Schmendrick the Magician was taken from a character in stories Beagle used to tell his children, where it was meant as a pun on Mandrake the Magician.
  • That is one freaky clock.
  • Beagle specifically did not want Rankin/Bass making the movie, and was horrified when he learned that the producer of the project had signed a deal with them. However, he did ultimately approve of the end result, although he thought Alan Arkin was miscast as Schmendrick.

Groovy Quotes:

Song lyric: When the first breath of winter/
Through the flowers is icing/
And you look to the north/
And the pale moon is rising/
And it seems like all is dying/
And would leave the world to mourn/
In the distance, hear the laughter/
Of the last unicorn.

Butterfly: They passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints.

Unicorn: If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be other unicorns yet in the world, unknown – and glad of it.

Schmendrick: I am called Schmendrick, the Magician. Uh… you won’t have heard of me.

Unicorn: Do not boast, old woman. Your death sits in that cage, and she hears you.

Schmendrick: (repeated line) Magic, do as you will!

Unicorn: I am here now.
Molly Grue: (laughs bitterly) And where were you twenty years ago – ten years ago? Where were you when I was new; when I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you – how dare you come to me now, when I am this?

Schmendrick: I am Schmendrick the Magician, last of the red-hot swamis!

Unicorn: Do you know who I am?
Butterfly: Excellent well; you’re a fishmonger! (singing) You’re my everything; you are my sunshine, you’re old and gray and full of sleep! You’re my pickle-faced, consumptive Mary Jane!

Mommy Fortuna: You’re mine. If you kill me, you’re still mine.

Schmendrick: Be wary of wousing a rizard’s wrath! Rousing a rizard’s… rou… Be wary of making a magician angry!

Jack Jingly: Hi lads, mind your ‘eads, now – it’s rainin’ ninnies!

Molly Grue: Please do something!
Schmendrick: What can I do? D’you think the Red Bull likes card tricks?

Butterfly: Your name is a golden bell hung in my heart. I would break my body to pieces to call you once by your name.
Unicorn: Say it, if you know.
Butterfly: Rumpelstiltskin – gotcha!

Outlaw #1: Rat soup! Again, rat soup!
Outlaw #2: At least she could use a different rat, the third night, anyway.

Schmendrick: It’s a very rare person who is taken for what he truly is.

King Haggard: You are losing my interest, and that is very dangerous.

Schmendrick: I can’t do this very much longer. He had me juggling teacups for him all night long. Teacups! With tea in them!

Prince Lir: (singing) Words are always getting in my way/Anyway, I love
you/
That’s all I’ve got to tell you/
That’s all I have to say.

Mommy Fortuna: Do you think I don’t know what the true witchery is, just because I do what I do? There’s not a witch in the world hasn’t laughed at Mommy Fortuna and her homemade horrors – but there’s not a one of them who would have dared…

Schmendrick: Shut up, you pretentious kneecap! How’d you like a punch in the eye?

Butterfly: His firstling bull has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox. With them he shall push the unicorns, all of them, to the ends of the Earth.

King Haggard: Do not mock me. I know very well what you have come for, and you know very well that I have them – try to take them if you can, but do not mock me!

Schmendrick: Oh God, I’m engaged to a Douglas Fir!

Cat: No cat out of its first fur can ever be deceived by appearances, unlike human beings, who seems to enjoy it.

Schmendrick: I am a bearer, I am a dwelling, I am a messenger…!
Molly Grue: You are an idiot!

Mabruk: Haggard, I would not be you for all the world. You have let your doom in by the front door, but it will not depart that way. Farewell, poor Haggard!

King Haggard: My secrets guard themselves. Will yours do the same?

Cat: I would tell ye what ye want to know if I could, mum, but I be a cat – and no cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.

Schmendrick: You pile of stones! I’ll set all your toenails growing inward, you mess with me!

King Haggard: There is no movement of yours that has not betrayed you – a pace, a glance, a turn of the head, the flash of your throat as you breathe, even your way of standing perfectly still; they were all my spies.

Prince Lir: My lady, I am a hero, and heroes know that things must happen when it is time for them to happen. A quest may not simply be abandoned; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

Schmendrick: She will remember your heart when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits.

Mommy Fortuna: Not alone! You never could have freed yourselves alone! I held you!

Molly Grue: What is the use of wizardry if it cannot save a unicorn?
Schmendrick: That is what heroes are for.
Prince Lir: Of course; that is exactly what heroes are for!

Unicorn: You must never run from anything immortal; it attracts their attention.

Schmendrick: There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Neverending Story
  • Ladyhawke
  • The Sea Prince and the Fire Child
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4 Comments

      • Being serious; I adored this movie as a wee girl. I must have watched it dozens of times; I would not be surprised to learn that I stopped because the tape broke. The film haunted me. This may be difficult to understand, but for me watching it was an almost spiritual experience. It still makes me ache, especially the songs Man’s Road and The Last Unicorn.

      • Oh, I completely understand. Last Unicorn was not a significant part of my own childhood – as I said, I only saw it once back then – but it was an intense enough experience that the single watching stuck with me like glue. I got a bit of that ache you’re talking about, and it never really went away. If I had to pick an equivalent movie of my own, it’d probably be The Neverending Story, which I really should do a review of one of these days – that film raises such strong emotions in me to this day that it practically makes me weep.

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