on December 23, 2011
The Last Unicorn bears the distinction of being one of the few animated children's films that goes far, far beyond the scope of an animated children's film. Based on the best-selling classic by Peter S. Beagle, the animated adaptation has enthralled audiences of all ages for years. Now, on Blu-Ray, we have the definitive version of this landmark title.
A Unicorn begins to suspect that her kind have disappeared from the world after hearing two hunters speak on the subject. As she ponders the possibility, she is met by a roaming butterfly who sings in riddles and dodges her desperate questions before finally giving her a clue. The Unicorns had "passed down all the roads long ago, and the Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footprints," leaving no trace as to their whereabouts. Recognizing that her kind are in grave danger, she leaves the safety and security of her forest home to quest for her kin. She is captured by a menacing witch named Mommy Fortuna while sleeping and forced into a cage to delight villagers who pay to see Fortuna's "Creatures of Night, Brought to Light," a traveling carnival where regular animals have been cast with her spells to fool the people into seeing dangerous mythical beasts. The only real creatures in the show are the Unicorn herself, and a dangerous Harpy in an adjacent cage. As Mommy Fortuna finds it increasingly more difficult to keep the Harpy imprisoned, her bumbling assistant Schmendrick concocts a plan to free the Unicorn in the middle of the night using his magical skills which all fall flat. Finally the Unicorn is freed and begins setting loose the other animals wrongfully caged, including the dreaded Harpy. Once free, the Harpy rises into the air and begins a murderous vendetta against everyone in sight, battling the Unicorn several times before focusing her attentions on Mommy Fortuna who proudly declares "You never could have freed yourselves alone! I held you!" The Unicorn and Schmendrick escape, and become partners in her quest. Through previous dialog with Mommy Fortuna, the Unicorn learns that the Red Bull is actually a servant of the evil King Haggard who resides in a castle overlooking the sea. The two are confronted by outlaws in the forest and end up meeting Molly Grue, an old woman who also joins their quest after having waited a lifetime to see a Unicorn. As the trio near Haggard's castle, the Red Bull senses the presence of a Unicorn and attacks in the middle of the night as a ghostly being of pure flame and incredible destructive power. Schmendrick summons all of his magic in a desperate attempt to save the Unicorn, but unwittingly changes her into a young human girl. Now, confronted with the reality of her own mortality, the Unicorn begins to slowly go mad and forget herself, her quest, and her kind. With time running out, Schmendrick, Molly and the Unicorn manage to ingratiate themselves into King Haggard's staff, and quickly learn that the man is hiding a secret he will kill to protect, if necessary.
Though technically a children's film, The Last Unicorn's film adaptation is very heavy on dark themes of tragedy, terror, regret and despair. It is also a tale about love, hope, redemption and beauty. The book was smartly written by a very smart author, giving the film all the material it needs to succeed as a silver screen treatment. Veteran actors such as Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury and the great Christopher Lee all play their parts with a deep-seated conviction, and are all perfectly cast. Their characters are all flawed, and all feel the pain of regret and sorrow in some way. This is not a typical children's film heavy on humor and gags with a happy ending. Perhaps the greatest thing about the Last Unicorn is that it doesn't have a happy ending, but a bittersweet one instead. Even when salvation comes, everyone is changed because of it. To paraphrase Schmendrick in one subtle, but powerful moment..."Men don't always know when they're happy but...I think so." Although the animated film does tend to race through its running time rather quickly, it still manages to evoke a powerful response from the audience with characters who are genuinely lovable, and memorable. Even the evil King Haggard has one scene which explains his nefarious and psychotic behavior, and in that moment he becomes a character driven not by malevolence or sadism, but a simple, basic desire for happiness and comfort that fuels his selfish actions. This is a mature film, and in that respect, good for children who have been shoveled a constant load of kids movies with absolutely no point.
That being said, children under 6 shouldn't watch this film, no matter how appealing the movie may seem to young eyes. The animators have created some very scary characters for the film which all have the potential to plague a young child with horrible nightmares. Mommy Fortuna's twisted, snaggle-toothed visage and gigantic, piercing eyes are enough to cause a stir, but she is nothing compared to the Harpy; a twisted take on the commonly accepted half-human female, half-bird present in Greek mythology, resembling a three-breasted, gnarled old vulture with vicious eyes and a spine-chilling shriek. When the Harpy is set loose by the Unicorn, the terror builds to such palpable levels that it's all way too much for little children to bear. Even the Red Bull is a pretty powerful image for young eyes, though I suspect most kids will find it far more awe-inspiring than truly terrifying.
The Blu-Ray version of the film corrects several major oversights from the 25th Anniversary DVD release. First (and most importantly) there is no censoring of language anymore. The original theatrical track is present, and retains two instances of the word "damn" that were originally present. Visual censors have been removed as well, particularly on the Harpy. For a movie with such powerful thematic and dramatic elements to be censored was a crime in the first place. That being said, the Blu-Ray treatment is gorgeous. The opening scenes retain a lot of dirt, but that quickly clears up within the first few minutes and suddenly comes to life with crisp clarity and warm, saturated colors. In short, the Last Unicorn has never looked this good before. Not by a long shot. The soundtrack has been given a lossless HD 5.1 treatment, and although it won't blow the doors off of your house, it is noticeably better than any previous release so far. Care and attention has been put into this release, and it shows. As for extras, several of them have been recycled from the 25th Anniversary DVD, but the audio commentary track featuring Peter S. Beagle is worth the price of admission alone.
The Last Unicorn is a product of an era long since forgotten, where children's films could be unsettling and dark, and still be beautiful to behold. The film is a 92 minute morality lesson with a strong (if not quirky) visual style and all the classic fantasy literary themes one could ask for. Beware of who you're showing it to, but be proud that you've done so.