Following The Fantastic Adventures of Unico (1981), the little time-travelling unicorn returns for another anime adventure. The story picks up where we left off, as the West Wind spirits Unico away to pastures new. Left alone in the forest, Unico falls foul of Melvin Magnificat, a grumpy, fat pussycat who, in the English dub, sounds just like Lou Costello. Nasty Melvin freaks out when he sees Unico’s horn and tries to chase him out of the forest, but they’re both rendered speechless by an eerie melody.
A flute-playing magician turns Melvin’s buddies into wood, but the craven cat talks his way out of a similar fate and promises to help him turn all the animals into living puppets. Soon they’re both riding a flying tree trunk shooting laser beams at poor Unico. Unico finally finds safety with a new friend, a young girl named Cherry. However, Cherry’s long lost older brother Toby returns home and - surprise! - he’s the magician. Now a misguided apprentice to a strange wizard named Kuruku, Toby tries to wow his family with magic tricks, conjuring a beautiful dress for his mother and making flowers sprout from his father’s head.
“You can’t find real happiness by waving your hands and casting spells”, says his dad. Mad, cackling Kuruku flies in and transforms Cherry’s parents into zombie-like dolls. The whole town is turned into living puppets and, led by Toby’s disco flute stylings, journey to Nightmare Island, where Unico and Cherry narrowly escape Kuruku’s wrath. Aided by Marusu the baby sphinx, the friends journey to the end of world. Here, the wise, all-knowing Trojan Horse reveals Kuruku isn’t human at all, but an insane living puppet out to take over the world.
While the story isn’t as profound as the first movie and gives Unico far less to do, this remains a very cool, candy-coloured horror movie for little kids. In his second collaboration with Sanrio Films, anime giant Osamu Tezuka strikes the right balance between storybook whimsy and genuine creepiness. Shrieking, goggle-eyed hunchback Kuruku is a pretty scary opponent, guaranteed to give youngsters a few sleepless nights as he scuttles about like spider and haunts the woods as an orb of light groaning: “Toby! Toby!” He is sort of like a mad child, or a Pinocchio gone very, very wrong. Lording it over his ipsy-dipsy, Willy Wonka gone insane amusement park he turns humans into toys who fly and dance - just as he was once forced to do.
Tezuka works in a few Shintoist concepts like the island at the end of the world haunted by spirits of the things people threw away. The animation is less experimental than before, but still dazzlingly inventive especially the final kaleidoscopic symphony of magic lasers, aerial chases and a visually astounding collapsing castle. The conclusion flirts with touchy-feely in a Care Bears sort of way, but weirdness triumphs over sentimentality. One reason why the fairytale-turns-nasty atmosphere is so palpable might be the contribution of animator Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who went on to become the John Carpenter of anime.