I suppose it’s time I capped off my reviews of the four main Rankin Bass flicks, and thankfully we end on a high note. With the highest budget of them all, The Last Unicorn is by far the prettiest of Rankin Bass’s 2-D animated Fantasy films. It also boasts the tremendous vocal talents of Christopher Lee, a man who elevates any material he is given, even if said material is a character named Count Dookie. In many way, this movie is the highest point of Rankin Bass’s Fantasy aesthetic, and may perhaps be their objectively best film. While it’s not quite my favorite (it’s hard to beat the movies that have dragons in starring roles), I still find it marvelous, as it shows what this company could do when given the money they needed.
The opening credits of the film use actual medieval taspestries as inspiration, recreating the creatures and scenes upon them before bringing those things to life. The design of the unicorn in this movie is incredibly unique, being more than just a horse with a horn, but upon seeing the animated tapestries, you immediately realize where the inspiration for the design came from – its strange, graceful form is drawn directly from medieval artwork. It’s a wonderful touch that feels so new despite being so old – from my other posts, you may surmise that I’m particularly fond of this approach to fantasy creature design.
The titular last unicorn hears that her fellow unicorns have disappeared, and, being perturbed at this news, sets out to learn the truth. A butterfly tells her that a Red Bull drove the unicorns into the sea. While the butterfly in question is kind of coocoo bananas, the unicorn trusts his word and leaves her forest to find the rest of her kind, for good or ill.
A peasant mistakes the unicorn for a normal horse, being incapable of seeing her horn, and horribly offends the magical creature. She notes that men can no longer recognize the fantastical, and is glad for it, as it means she and her kind may be safe. This kind of points to a unifying theme of the Rankin Bass fantasy film quartet: the idea that magic began to die or at least fade from perception as time passed, and that humanity lost the ability to see the enchanting parts of the world. Indeed, if The Flight of Dragons was a story of the magical world trying to keep from falling to extinction, then The Last Unicorn is about how humanity tries force the magical to fall under its control, and in doing so furthers the divide between them.
The unicorn encounters a witch, Mommy Fortuna, who runs a traveling circus. Fortuna actually recognizes her for what she is, but knows that other people won’t, and creates an illusory horn on the unicorn’s head. We learn that the witch’s circus is filled with normal animals that have been magically altered to look like magical beasts: a lion becomes a manticore, a lizard becomes a dragon, a python becomes the Midgar Serpent, etc. Only the unicorn and, oddly enough, a harpy are really what they seem to be. Luckily, Fortuna’s apprentice, a wizard named Schmendrick, can not only see the unicorn for what she is, but is sympathetic to her plight, and plans to help the unicorn escape.
Mommy Fortuna taunts the harpy and the unicorn, saying that while she knows the harpy will escape and kill her one day, she doesn’t care, as she caught immortal creatures that will forever remember the humiliation of being caged by a mortal. “There’s my immortality, heh?” The old witch believes that the magical creatures belong to her because she caged them, and is even bold enough to tell the unicorn she should be thankful that the witch is keeping her from the Red Bull.
Schmendrick returns to save the unicorn, casting a spell to break her cage, but we quickly learn that a wizard called Schmendrick may not be a high quality wizard. I mean he doesn’t even have a beard for chrissakes. So instead of breaking the unicorn free immediately, Schmendrick tries, like, seven goddamn times to free her. He has true magic, but he’s just… just so bad at it. Or, as Schmendrick says, “My dear, you deserve the aid of a great magician, but I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for a second rate pickpocket.” He then picks the lock with stolen keys, only to get caught by Mommy Fortuna’s hunchbacked assistant. All hell breaks loose as the unicorn unlocks all the cages, including the cage of the harpy. True to magical form, the Harpy kills Mommy Fortuna, and the unicorn and Schmendrick barely manage to escape with their lives.
Schmendrick gets captured by some bandits who fancy themselves to be like Robin Hood’s Merry Men, but are really just a bunch of cutthroat thieves with a dramatic streak. Among them is Molly Grue, a salt of the earth sort of woman with a backbone of iron and enough common sense to compensate for the gaggle of idiots she cooks for. Schmendrick conjures an illusion of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which all the bandits then follow in desperation to be part of something better than what they really are. Sadly the leaders of the bandits aren’t fooled, and they promptly tie Schmendrick to a tree and plan to sell him into slavery. Worse, Schmendrick’s powers animate a tree with giant bazoombas, and a scene everyone would like to forget ensues before the unicorn rescues him.
Molly Grue runs into the pair in the woods, and, unlike most people, actually recognizes the unicorn for what she is. This gives Molly a small breakdown: “Where were you when I was young? How dare you come to me now, when I’ve come to this?” If you know your unicorn mythology, you know that they generally only come to virgins, or at least those who are pure of heart. Molly, a woman we can tell at a glance has seen some shit, obviously doesn’t think she fits the criteria anymore, despite having desperately wanted to see a unicorn her whole life. The fact that she does see the unicorn for what it is, however, tells us something more about Molly, and honestly, this is just… just really neat, isn’t it? It’s the kind of interesting character development stuff you can do with fantastical concepts – that we can learn something about Molly’s character just because she can see the unicorn when others can’t. It’s neat.
The trio then runs into the Red Bull we’ve heard so much about, which basically looks as demonic as a bull can get. The monstrous beast chases down our unicorn protagonist on sight, and Molly Grue and Schmendrick wrack their brains on how they could intervene. Molly tells Schmendrick that he’s a good enough magician to save the day, and amazingly, Schmendrick proves her right, turning the unicorn into a human that the bull promptly ignores.
Unfortunately, Schmendrick is still an immensely shitty wizard, and cannot figure out how to undo the spell. Molly Grue immediately realizes this won’t work out well, as humans and unicorns have some key psychological differences that won’t exactly translate well. Sure enough, one of the first things the woman-who-was-a-unicorn says is, “I can feel this body dying!”, so yeah, this is more than a little traumatic for her.
Our heroes arrive at the castle of King Haggard, and are stopped by two guards, one of which has a fuggin’ awesome voice. It is then revealed the two guards are none other than King Haggard (the one played by Christopher Lee) and his son, Lir. Schmendrick tells the king that his group has come to be the king’s servants, which is a pretty decent cover story all things considered. King Haggard claims he already has a magician, but Molly Grue points out he must not be a very good magician, as the King is clearly not happy. When Haggard asks how she would know, Molly replies, “Well just look at you,” which is why Molly Grue is the best. Haggard thinks so as well: “The woman is right – a master magician has not made me happy, let’s see what an incompetent one can do.” And so the gang gets hired.
Haggard notices that the unicorn-turned-woman is, well, not exactly an ordinary woman, and is fascinated. Schmendrick tells the King she is the Lady Amalthea, and Haggard, curious to the point of getting more than a little menacing, allows them to stay until he can figure out why he can’t see himself in Amalthea’s eyes. Lir is also interested in Amalthea, albeit in a less offputting way, which is to say in a somewhat forced heterosexual romantic way. We then get a montage of life at the castle, complete with Lir killing an Asian Dragon that uses a modified version of Godzilla’s roar. Lir grows increasingly infatuated with Amalthea/the unicorn, while Haggard is vaguely entertained by Schmendrick’s magic tricks and not-so-vaguely creeping on Amalthea.
Eventually Lir asks Molly Grue for love advice, bemoaning the fact that all his great deeds have failed to impress Amalthea. Molly Grue tells him that maybe she wants something other than, y’know, killing dragons for no particular reason. She also talks to Amalthea on Lir’s behalf, only to discover Amalthea is losing her memory of being a unicorn as humanity increasingly sets in over her psyche. It’s the kind of interesting concept that, again, you can really only explore in a story that has this kind of fantastical element, and yet you so rarely find fantasy stories that delve into this sort of weirdness.
Molly then encounters a cat that lives in the castle and, for whatever reason, is also a pirate and capable of speech? Like, it has a pegleg and an eyepatch, and also talks like a pirate, and I have no idea why but it’s delightful. The cat gives Molly important exposition: the Red Bull is employed by King Haggard, and Haggard’s castle has a tunnel that leads to the Red Bull’s lair. The cat refuses to tell Molly how to reach the tunnel outright, instead couching the advice in a riddle, as “No cat ever gave a straight answer, harr harr!”
Lir, at Molly Grue’s instruction, writes a poem for Amalthea, and then reads it to her, and it’s genuinely sweet and not at all reminding me of several doomed attempts at romance I made when I was a melodramatic teenager. It especially doesn’t remind me of such humiliating failures when Lir starts to sing the poem in a voice that’s just a little hollow. Anyway, it definitely doesn’t remind me of any past experience when it actually works, as Amalthea finally starts to return some of Lir’s affection, perhaps in no small part due to the fact that she’s losing her innate unicorn-y-ness.
Or maybe mushy sentimental poetry actually works on unicorns, IDK.
King Haggard finds Amalthea as she watches Lir riding home, and the two have a tense conversation. Haggard reveals he adopted Lir in an attempt to be happy, only to find it as hollow and vain as all his other attempts. He chastises Amalthea for clinging to the pretense that she’s human, claiming he can tell her true nature from the way she moves and interacts with the world. Worse, he reveals that he has purposely driven the unicorns into the sea. This moment actually becomes a little tragic, as Haggard reveals the unicorns are the only thing that makes him happy, and it was the happiness they inspired that led the mad king to imprison them so he could have them forever. The scene is a testament to Christopher Lee’s acting skill, as it makes King Haggard both immensely terrifying and sympathetic. There is a final twist to it, though, as Amalthea cannot see her unicorn kin in the water, proving that she may soon be too far gone to ever become a unicorn again. Her eyes, as Haggard notes, have become as empty “as any eyes that never saw a unicorn.”
After bribing a skeleton with an empty bottle of wine (don’t ask), our heroes find the entrance to the Red Bull’s lair, which is hidden in a magic clock. Lir joins them along the way, while Haggard destroys the clock after they’ve entered, trapping our heroes in the Red Bull’s lair with only one way out. Schmendrick finally tells Lir that Amalthea is a unicorn, and Lir says that it won’t change a thing for him. Amalthea then protests that she doesn’t want to change back, as she loves Lir too. However, Amalthea must change back if the other unicorns are to be saved, and Lir argues that Amalthea must go through with her original plan, even if it means they cannot stay in love. In essence, Lir proves to be a better man than his father, as he would let magic run free even if it meant he could never experience it again.
Schmendrick turns Amalthea back into a unicorn, and Lir rushes in to fight the bull on her behalf, getting struck down in the process. Heartbroken, Amalthea goes on the offensive, driving the Red Bull back and giving all the trapped unicorns inspiration to leave the sea and fend off the Bull once and for all. Haggard’s castle collapses in the unicorn stampede, killing the old tyrant in the process. Amalthea heals Lir’s wounds, then returns home, knowing she is the only unicorn who has ever experienced love and regret.
Aesthetically, The Last Unicorn is a delight, with all the wonderfully stylized, expressive, and unique character designs you’d expect from Rankin Bass, lush landscapes, and most marvelous of all, the animation budget to bring these characters to life far better than ever before. It is the apex of their style, accomplishing much of what the studio tried and only somewhat succeeded to do in the past. Its story is strange, enchanting, and deeply emotional, all while taking us to fantastic places with strange and wonderful characters.
To end on a philosophical note, The Last Unicorn offers an interesting meditation on the relationship between humanity and its fantasies. The world of imagination must be kept free – not chained and forced to fit a popular mold, as it is in Mommy Fortuna’s circus and indeed many stale storytelling tropes. Nor should it be obsessed over, as doing so can not only lead one to neglect the important things in the world around them, but also poisons the fantasy itself, as is the case with King Haggard. No, fantasy, by its nature, is ethereal and unreachable, a fleeting thing that flutters in and out of our lives. It can’t stay as long as we would like, and sometimes it fails to find us when we feel we need it, but it can come to us when we need it, even if we thought it was impossible, as was the case with Molly Grue. Fantasy inspires us with its impossibility, delights us with its purity, and while in time it fades as the real world asserts its presence, it never leaves entirely – it lives still, in the forests of imagination, and in our hearts which hope for a better, stranger world.