Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - The Last Unicorn

It's time again for Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I watch one of the multitude of DVDs in my home library and offer my thoughts on it.  Today, we do one of my favourite animated films from my childhood, The Last Unicorn.  This review is originally dated March 15, 2012.

Sat down and watched this one over the weekend, didn't have a chance to sit down and write it up until now.  A friend of mine once remarked that "blogs are for people with little to do and even less to say."  That seems to be true, because the more I have to do, the less I blog. 

Anyway, last Friday night, I didn't know what to toss in the DVD player, so I finally went with the classic animated film The Last Unicorn.  For some reason, I watched this a lot when I was kid.  It was the early-1980s...VCRs were still new and exciting.  You had to rent the movies and the VCR itself.  I was still of the age where I'd watch nothing but cartoons, and this seemed to be the only animated film that the video store across the way in Evansburg had.  So, I wound up renting it a lot.

The Last Unicorn was based on the classic fantasy novel by Peter S. Beagle.  Despite having seen the movie many, many times, I've never read the book, though I hope to some day.  That's probably what set off my craving to watch it again.  I actually saw the book on special in Chapters last time I was in the city.  I was tempted to pick it up, but felt I'd spent too much money that day.  Many years ago, though, I saw the DVD in the discount bin at Wal-Mart and for just $5, I figured, "Yes!  Why not?"  Apparently, there's a much better Blu-Ray out now, and I've seen that in a discount bin and have felt tempted to pick it up, but as I've blogged before, I'm not in a big rush to upgrade anything to Blu-Ray until I get the HDTV to properly enjoy it on.  Besides, 2012 marks the film's 30th anniversary, and I've read rumblings online of a possible brand new 30th anniversary edition coming this year.

When the movie begins, the first bits of exposition are laid out by two hunters, who are puzzled that there seems to be no game in the forest.  The older and more wiser reasons that this forest must be under the magical protection of a unicorn, and that they will find no game.  As the two depart the forest, the older calls out to the unicorn, announcing that no other unicorns have been spotted in a long time and that she may be the last of her kind.  The hunters leave, and our heroine, the Unicorn, steps into view.  These words haunt her, and soon she meets an erratic butterfly from a far off land who tells a horrible story that all the other unicorns were captured by a great beast known as the Red Bull who drove them into a sea.  Fearing that this story may be true, the Unicorn departs her forest and goes on a quest to find her sisters. 

While on her journey, the Unicorn is captured by the old witch Mommie Fortuna, and put on display in her zoo of mythical creatures.  It is here that we meet the first to join the Unicorn on her quest...Schmendrick the Magician, a bumbling wizard who hopes to be a great and powerful wizard some day.  Most of the creatures in Fortuna's zoo are real animals, made to look like mythical beasts through illusion, save for two:  the Unicorn and a Harpy.  One night, Schmendrick frees the Unicorn.  Not wanting to see one of her fellow creatures of myth be imprisoned, the Unicorn also frees the Harpy, and needless to say, Fortuna meets a gruesome end at the Harpy's claws. 

The Unicorn and Schmendrick carry on until their captured by some highwaymen...Captain Cuddy and his band of outlaws.  It is here that we meet the second to join our heroes:  Molly Grue, Cuddy's common-law wife and the cook for these bandits.  I like Grue as a character.  She pretty much married young, and she's not an old woman yet, but she has reached the age where she's really starting to regret it.  Hence her first reaction to the Unicorn:  one of anger and bitterness.  How dare the Unicorn come to her now, and not to her when she was a fair young maiden like in the fairy tales!  However, old Molly still has enough love in her heart for the Unicorn, and joins Schmendrick and the Unicorn on their quest.

Their journey leads them to King Haggard, rumored to be the master of the Red Bull.  But as they approach Haggard's castle, they are attacked by the Red Bull!  In order to save the Unicorn, Schmendrick summons up as much magic as he can...and turns the Unicorn into a human.  This confuses the Red Bull and he walks away.  The Unicorn, however, is horrified at this transformation.  Being an immortal creature, and now trapped in a body that's aging...she has trouble dealing with it.

The three then enter King Haggard's castle.  They meet Haggard and his son, Prince Lir.  They get jobs in Haggard's court, and begin trying to figure out what Haggard's done with the unicorns, and how they can defeat the Red Bull.  The clock is ticking, though.  The longer that the Unicorn is in human form, the more she begins to forget her previous life as a unicorn.  Complicating the fact is that she's starting to fall in love with Prince Lir, thus tempting her to say human forever. 

As for Haggard's plot, Haggard eventually deduces the Unicorn's true identity, and reveals what he's done with the unicorns.  Pretty much, Haggard suffers from clinical depressions.  He expresses all throughout the film that nothing in life brings him joy.  But then, he reveals to the Unicorn that there is one thing that brings him joy...unicorns.  So had the Red Bull round them all up and drive them into the sea.  And, every day, when he sees the unicorns ride in on the tides, it is the one thing that brings him happiness.  The unicorns are too fearful of the Red Bull to step back onto land, so they wash back out to sea when the tide goes out. 

With this knowledge, our three heroes venture into the Red Bull's lair to attempt to defeat the Red Bull, knowing his defeat is the only thing that can save the unicorns.  Lir, however, has also deduced the Unicorn's true identity, and joins our heroes.  And as they head to lair of the Red Bull, the Unicorn is ready to give it all up and live happily ever after with Prince Lir.

And this...is a great scene.  Things get borderline-fourth-wall-breaking here as the characters begin to identify what roles they are playing in this story, and what they must do to see this story brought to an end.  Molly gets the Unicorn back on track with a very angry, "You can't have your happy ending because we're still in the middle of the story!" and Schmendrick follows up with a line that I've been quoting since I first saw this when I was six, "There can be no happy endings because nothing really ends."  Apparently, this is why the original novel is regarded as such a classic.  It is just filled with self-aware references like this.  Where as a film like Shrek does it for sarcastic commentary, The Last Unicorn does it for critical debate of the genre.  Damn, I really must read the book some day.

They find the Red Bull, and Schmendrick summons all his magic to turn the Unicorn back into a unicorn.  But, she cannot find the courage to fight.  Lir, identifying his role in this tale as the hero, makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop the Red Bull from driving the Unicorn into the sea.  Seeing the body of her love lying lifeless on the beach, the Unicorn finally finds the strength to fight.  She turns the tables, and drives the Red Bull into the sea.  With the Red Bull gone, all the unicorns come stampeding out of the ocean, and destroy Haggard`s castle - and Haggard - in their mad dash.  The Unicorn comes back, and is able to revive Lir with her magic, before walking off.

Lir ascends to his father's throne, and wonders if the Unicorn still loves him.  Schmendrick says that she does, and in a way, now, their love will never die, as Unicorns are immortal, and thus, her memories of Lir are immortal.  Schmendrick and Molly depart, but the Unicorn returns to them to say her good-byes.  She admits that it will be difficult for her to return home, because she has now changed so much.  She is now the only unicorn who has known mortality...and true love...and regret.  Molly and Schmendrick watch as the Unicorn rides off into the sunset. 

The End.

Not really.  There's a montage under the end credits as the Unicorn returns home.  I like it when movies do that.  The montage ends with the Unicorn returning to the edge of her forest, and pausing for a moment, wondering if she can go home again.  She takes a breath, her horn glimmers with magic, giving her courage, and she enters her forest.  It's a beautiful end.

But that's it.  I know, it's got a real downer of an ending, and it's very talky, but you know what?  It is so very good.  It is very philosophical.  It really is a magical tale. 

One last thing before I go.  Peter S. Beagle, the author of the original novel, wrote the script.  The film was made by Rankin/Bass and directed by Arthur Ranking Jr and Jules Bass.  Yes.  The Christmas special people.  Rankin and Bass contracted the animation out to the Japanese animation house Topcraft.  Topcraft's next project after this was an adaptation of the manga Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind, and Nausicaa's director Hayao Miyazaki liked their work so much he bought Topcraft and turned it into his studio, Studio Ghibli.  So in a very roundabout way, The Last Unicorn could be considered the first Studio Ghibli film.  Its' a stretch, but there it is.   

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