I’ve had memories of this one in such an ingrained fashion that I couldn’t actually tell you when I first saw it. I can certainly tell you of the moment I recall walking out of the daycare I went to as a child, and seeing the last moments again, I think, though I’m not sure, from the videotape we had at my childhood home. It’s a bit funny, really: I came to love this film (and the beautiful piece of writing from which its own author, Peter S. Beagle, adapted it) but I’ve never seen another Rankin/Bass movie I can think of. Nope, not even Rudolph or Frosty. I know they were responsible for the animated adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King,¹ but yeah I haven’t seen even those.
As they pass through an enchanted forest, two hunters decide to find another location for their hunt, knowing this is the home of a unicorn, and referring to her as the last. Said unicorn (voiced by Mia Farrow) is surprised to hear this, and seeks information from a butterfly (voiced by Don Messick) who tells her the rest of the unicorns were driven away by “the Red Bull”. She tentatively takes leave of her forest to find her forgotten siblings, running into the sideshow witch Mommy Fortuna (voiced by Angela Lansbury), who wants her as an exhibition in her “Midnight Carnival”, Schmendrick (voiced by Alan Arkin), the aspiring magician who wants to assist her, Molly Grue (voiced by Tammy Grimes), who has never lost her youthful love of unicorns, and she’s directed to the castle of King Haggard (voiced by Christopher Lee) and his son Prince Lir (voiced by Jeff Bridges), as the home of the Red Bull.
While many know this film, I encourage anyone–whether they do or not–to read Beagle’s 1968 novel. Certainly, he more than successfully adapted his own work into the screenplay behind this, but the writing of his descriptions and whimsical wonderings is naturally not present without a narrator. Some of this wit and language remains, complete with its minor anachronisms: the butterfly speaks only in song and rhyme, and references many songs not nearly so old as technology that stops at horses and locks, as well as trains (!). The characters and story are largely preserved, and make for an entirely surprising cast, all well-rounded and defined, and filling few, if any, expected roles. Lir is closest to a “standard” fantasy hero, but this is far from a movie about Lir, and his standard heroics by-and-large go unfocused. Molly Grue is a middle-aged woman, angry at the unicorn for missing her youth. Schmendrick’s failed magicianship is often chaotic, if it manages at all, and only becomes awe-inspiring when he asks the magic to do as it will. The unicorn is ethereal in attitude, knowing herself as very unlike any non-magical creatures: immortal, and of different concerns. Captain Cully (who is voiced by Keenan Wynn) is a good-natured outlaw, who’s also a bit of a doofus. Lir is noble but sheltered–albeit somewhat unintentionally, by a neglectful father–and it all comes into a very modernist fantasy that avoids turning any of those subtle tweaks into a screaming gimmick to “prove” its uniqueness, leaving them naught but interesting nuance. The story itself does not rest on happiness, neatness, and expectation, while keeping such an internal consistency that it maintains a sense of “fairy tale”, as if it were a lost tale–even as those aforementioned anachronisms call out to the fact that it can’t be.
Much of the animation was outsourced to a Japanese studio, Topcraft, which was hired two years later to animate Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and the reputational implications of that future are apparent here (which includes a gradual metamorphosis after that film into Studio Ghibli). The character designs are lively and creative, varied and full of character, with attention to detail often elided in animation. There are interesting tics, of course: both Schmendrick and Lir have interesting shoulder tufts that are not quite epaulets, and the hair of Molly Grue and the Lady Amalthea remains absurdly lively in all their appearances. The cels are beautiful and generally both crisp and fluid, while the matte paintings on which they are placed are also quite beautiful. It’s interestingly paired with songwriter Jimmy Webb’s songs, primarily performed by the band America (most famous for “A Horse with No Name”). The title track is lovely, as is “Man’s Road”–later songs are sung by Amalthea (Katie Irving) and Lir (Bridges himself), and honestly feel a bit weird, considering we’ve had no characters sing up to that point.
It’s a glorious reality that this beautiful little piece hasn’t suffered some obnoxious remake, nor any insistent, cash-out sequel, because it would be very difficult to successfully replicate something that hits such a wonderful succession of rightly unusual notes. Give it a watch, if you haven’t.
¹Yeah. Go figure. They adapted the prequel and the last book. No idea there.