The Last Unicorn

Movie Information

Walk-in Theatre presents The Last Unicorn at dark on Friday, Aug. 10, in the parking lot behind the Bledsoe Building in West Asheville. Sponsored by the merchants of the Bledsoe Building. As usual, admission is free, but please leave pets and alcohol at home.
Genre: Animated Fantasy
Director: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Starring: Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury
Rated: G

This is one of those “you had to be there” in order to really get the appeal affairs. It’s kind of the Generation X version of my generation’s fondness for the Rankin-Bass produced Frosty the Snowman (1964). In other words, nearly everyone who waxes rhapsodic over The Last Unicorn (1982) starts off noting how they “grew up on the film.”

Viewed dispassionately by someone who was 27 or 28 at the time the film appeared, it’s at best a mixed bag. It starts out with some terrific multiplane camerawork of a forest done up in the colors of a Maxfield Parrish painting—an effect that lasts just as long as it takes to hit the opening credits. Suddenly the fantasy realism gives way to much cruder stylized imagery, a unicorn that looks like an anorexic My Pretty Pony and a title song by the pap-rock group America (who quickly prove that time had not dimmed the vapidity that propelled them to the top of the charts in 1971 with “A Horse With No Name” and “Sister Golden Hair”).

There are good things after that, including Robert Klein giving voice to a butterfly that converses in everything from pop standards to snatches of poetry by Yeats, Christopher Lee as King Haggard and Angela Lansbury as Mommy Fortuna. But the good performances are balanced against several voice performers who seem to be in full “just sign the check” mode—the usually reliable Alan Arkin is chief among the offenders. There’s also an uneasy mix of fair-to-crude animation. The overuse of cycles is alarming, and characters often seem to be moving in front of the backgrounds rather than through them. Still, it’s a pleasant enough little tale with enough good bits to make it painless—and, of course, if you grew up on it, you’ll probably cut it a lot more slack than I have.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

4 thoughts on “The Last Unicorn

  1. mike

    I was 34 when it came out, and i loved it.

    Of course, it helped that i loved the book beforehand.

  2. Just Someone

    Just wanted to let you know that the “much cruder stylized imagery, a unicorn that looks like an anorexic My Pretty Pony” was a direct reference to(in fact, its basically just an animated and slightly edited version of) a famous 15th/16th century series of tapestries called The Hunt of the Unicorn or The Unicorn Tapestries and is not just a poor choice in art style, but a very faithful, creative, and clever nod to the history and mythology of the Unicorn.

    Learn yourself your history before you talk about poor design choice:

    Additionally, Alan Arkin’s performance of Schmendrick was underdone on purpose because he felt that with Christopher Lee and Angela Lansbury chewing the scenery and hamming it up(wonderfully, though), the audience would appreciate someone more dry and easy and simple.

    Just thought you should be aware of these things since they seem to discredit a couple sticking points of your review.

    • Ken Hanke

      Knowing the supposed story behind something does not actually alter anything. That may be why Arkin is walking through his role. It doesn’t change the fact that he is. As for its authenticity — and, by the way, I’ve seen those tapestries — that doesn’t mean that it was a good choice in this medium.

  3. timothy hernández

    I didn’t grow up having viewed the film. While being aware of its existence, and I think perhaps seeing a clip in passing when I was younger, I never watched the film in its entirety. It wasn’t until I discovered it on Netflix within the last year that I finally watched it. I was immediately taken with the story, animation and voice acting. While I think it’s fair to say this film is a “mixed-bag,” I’d give it no worse than four out of five stars. Clearly, I enjoyed the movie more than you.

    Having now seen the film on multiple occasions, I’ve read a lot of criticism regarding Alan Arkin’s performance, and while I concede he’s not the highlight of the movie, his performance is not unforgettable, and that is reason enough for me to laud his work. Many other characters deserve recognition for their familiar presence in many popular animated films of yore, including Don Messick, Rene Auberjonois, and Paul Frees. Tammy Grimes also deserves praise.

    The animation is characteristic of Rankin-Bass, and that familiarity gives me comfort. This film stands out from other Rankin-Bass productions, however, because of the total package, the melding of story, animation and voice acting.

    I also am shamed to say I hadn’t read the book before watching the film. I corrected that soon after, checking it out from the library the next day and reading it straight through. Peter S. Beagle did an excellent job condensing his novel to a screenplay. The music and motion of the story through animation make up for what he had to cut.

    I find fault with your criticism of America’s work, too. I was enthralled with “The Last Unicorn” and “Man’s Road.” I can listen to these songs on repeat. I shared the film with my youngest niece (seven-year-old) for the first time last night and she marveled at the unicorn, enjoyed the aforementioned songs and cowered at the Red Bull. Well worth the price of admission and certainly worth viewing on Netflix, a public show or on Blu-Ray/DVD!

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