The Last Unicorn wasn’t a film of my childhood, as it has been for many since its 1982 release. It is generally regarded as something of a classic of animation, and despite its dated aesthetic, the style of the dialogue is remarkably modern for its era and it certainly has captivating imagery. I only watched it for the first time on February 2nd, 2009, and was impressed by the ‘strange and fascinating little animation, very interesting in terms of animation history, extremely idiosyncratic, oddly paced and with some extremely good voice acting.’ I was keen on the ‘quirky, underacted, very Jewish humour’, and found that it was compelling, despite a fairly weak story.
A unicorn discovers from a random butterfly that she is the last of her kind, the rest run out of the world by a ‘red bull’. She is soon captured by an old witch, but escapes with the help of Schmendrick, a bumbling young wizard who mostly relies on simple tricks. Escaping together, the two of them eventually find their way to a castle where can finally find some answers.
The story, though, really isn’t the focus. It all gets wrapped up with a deus ex machina that really could have happened in the first five minutes if that had been how the film was written. The film is more concerned with personal responsibility, relationships between people of different classes and true natures. This makes for a film that always feels somewhat at arm’s length, but allows for some really interesting moments and high visual impact.
But the film is still somewhat seminal. It’s also interesting in that Rankin/Bass had Topcraft provide the animation: they had been collaborating since the early seventies, making mostly TV specials such as Tom Sawyer, as well as the version of The Hobbit now largely eclipsed by the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings adaptation. They went on to make a less impressive follow-up, Return of the King and a further fantasy film, Flight of the Dragons, before Cagliostro and then Nausicäa changed Topcraft forever. The Last Unicorn is very probably the most important and well-known of the Rankin/Bass-Topcraft collaborations – although it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the Topcraft workers who did not go on to be part of Ghibli would work again with Rankin/Bass, this time as Pacific Animation Corporation, to make Thundercats.
Odd, unique and memorable, The Last Unicorn deserves its place as a minor classic that’s just a little too quirky to be part of the Disneyesque mainstream.