It’s difficult to compare The Last Unicorn to anything which has come before or after it. Part children’s animation, part epic fantasy, part fable, Peter S. Beagle’s adaptation of his original novel is as beautiful as it is simple, as sweet as it is sad and as enjoyable for adults as it is for children (perhaps even more so). An immortal unicorn (Mia Farrow) lives in her forest of eternal summer where the leaves stay green through all the seasons. One day when she overhears a group of passing men saying that she is the last unicorn in the world, the unicorn prepares to leave the safety of the forest and venture out to find out what happened to the rest of her kind.
Along the way she is kidnapped and must escape from Mommy Fortuna and her Midnight Carnival and picks up two companions; Schmendrick, an incompetent magician and Molly Grue, the wife of a travelling outlaw. The unicorn eventually learns that a demonic entity called the Red Bull herded all the unicorns away across the earth to the land of King Haggard. Together the three companions travel to King Haggard’s barren country by the sea, but before they are able to reach the castle, the Red Bull appears and tries to overcome the unicorn.
Using what powers he has, Schmendrick manages to turn the unicorn into a human so that the Red Bull will overlook her. Under an alias, the unicorn and her friends present themselves to King Haggard and find employment in his castle. In her human guise, the unicorn is able to search for her kin, but she becomes more and more despondent and confused, feeling trapped in an alien body she does not understand. During her time in the castle, she is distracted from her woe by King Haggard’s handsome adopted son Prince LÃr (Jeff Bridges), but as time goes on King Haggard begins to suspect her real identity.
While children will enjoy the simple but magical imagery, there is a sense of sadness and longing which sets The Last Unicorn apart from its contemporary counterparts. Directors Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. forgo wise-cracking genies or singing crabs in favour of a distinctive visual style and a haunting soundtrack performed by folk rock band America.
The Last Unicorn’s heavy-weight cast is by no means restricted by the expressive and evocative animation and the actors do justice to the script which is by turns witty and dramatic. Christopher Lee deftly brings cruelty and tragedy to the mean-spirited king who is unable to find joy in anything other than his stolen unicorns and a host of minor characters such as a riddle-tongued butterfly and an alcoholic skeleton lighten the tone with subtle humour. Mia Farrow’s distinctive voice is a welcome departure from the diet of harsh American accents which children are fed in this era of Disney/Pixar domination and is a perfect fit for the exquisitely drawn The Last Unicorn, making her seem at once both warm and other-worldly.