Living alone in her forest, a unicorn (Mia Farrow) is dismayed when she overhears two hunters saying she is the last of her kind. Setting out to discover what happened to the others, with only cryptic clues from a barmy butterfly to guide her, she is captured and caged by Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury) for her travelling freak show. However, bumbling magician Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) befriends the unicorn and sets her free. Together with kindly scullery maid Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), they journey to the kingdom of Hagsgate where the monstrous Red Bull has been deployed by King Haggard (Christopher Lee) to round up all unicorns and drive them into the sea. To save the unicorn’s life, Schmendrick utilizes his hit-and-miss magical powers and transforms her into a human girl, whom he and Molly dub Lady Amalthea, when they take refuge at King Haggard’s castle. Haggard’s son, Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges) is captivated by this beautiful stranger, and dreamy, bewildered Amalthea begins falling in love too. But while she slowly forgets about her past life and missing brethren, Molly stumbles upon a clue.
American audiences know Rankin-Bass for their charming, Christmas-themed animated specials (Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, etc.), while British viewers may recall the dreary, toy commercial/adventure serial Thundercats. But Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass also produced quirky, wonderful feature-length animations like The Daydreamer (1966) and The Last Unicorn whose outward, fairytale simplicity belied complex themes and philosophical depths. The Last Unicorn was one of two cartoons the studio released in 1982 based on novels by Peter S. Beagle (the other was The Flight of Dragons). Beagle’s post-modern fairytale was much acclaimed. Indeed, Christopher Lee was such an admirer he arrived for recording sessions with his own copy of the novel, with passages underlined he felt should not be omitted.
The story is post-modern not in the despairing, cynical way Shrek (2001) is, but in how it tackles the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of fairytale expectation and hard-bitten reality, with wit, wisdom and above all, tenderness. Shrek mocks our naïve faith in fairytales as easily as the ogre wipes his arse on a storybook. The Last Unicorn accepts reality doesn’t always provide a happy ending, but argues the moral precepts in fairytales are worthwhile and true, and manifest in unconventional ways. In the friendship that blossoms between heroic Prince Lir, a bumbling magician and a humble kitchen maid - characters he’d barely acknowledge were this a Disney movie. In the moment Captain Cully (Keenan Wynn) confronts the phantoms of Robin Hood and his Merry Men - reality meets romantic aspiration and is found wanting. His grubby outlaws give chase begging to join Robin’s legendary band. In how Schmendrick realises wounded, resilient Molly Grue is even more wondrous and beautiful than the unicorn. In the way Molly fiercely defends the unicorn as the vestige of hope and decency left in her own downtrodden soul. Molly actually provides the most heartbreaking scene. Her line when she first meets the unicorn: “How dare you come to me now, when I am this?” It encapsulates a grownup’s bitterness over wasted youth, of childhood dreams betrayed by harsh reality.
Which is not to suggest The Last Unicorn is dour, it’s often very funny indeed. Alan Arkin delivers some wry asides as Schmendrick, memorably confronting an enemy with “demons, metamorphoses, paralyzing ailments and secret judo holds”. Prince Lir sings a duet with a severed head. Brother Theodore plays a spaced-out butterfly. Rene Auberjonois plays a helpful, talking skeleton. A eye-patch-wearing, pirate cat spits out cryptic clues, then melts when Molly rubs his tummy (“Arr, do that again”). An exceptional cast bring warmth to their roles, with Mia Farrow’s delicate tones perfect for the gentle, thoughtful heroine. Forget those drippy Athena posters or fantasy art, this unicorn is a lyrical, poetic creature pondering her place in the universe. The one area where Farrow falters is her terrible song, “Now I Am A Woman”. Wonderful actress, lousy singer (her lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) being a notable exception).
Soft-rockers America contribute the M.O.R theme song that’s actually rather endearing and suitably compliments the film’s bittersweet conclusion. Seek this one out - a live action version is in the works.