I've only watched The Last Unicorn on a small television screen. Specifically, when my mother rented a VCR and a couple of video tapes, a few years after the 1982 film premiered. We lived in a rural area with access to only one TV station and could rarely afford a trip into “town” to see movies on the big screen. In those days, long before instant streaming, renting The Last Unicorn on VHS was a huge, unexpected treat.
Three decades later, the movie is still my favorite animated fantasy film. And I, and its many fans, are in for another treat: The Last Unicorn, based on Peter S. Beagle's award-winning 1968 novel, is currently on a national screening tour, with several stops scheduled around the Bay Area in the coming weeks.
Beagle, who has authored dozens of books and short stories since his first fantasy novel A Fine and Private Place debuted in 1960, also wrote the screenplay for The Last Unicorn, keeping his vision for the animated version aligned with the novel. An Oakland resident, Beagle will answer questions and sign books for fans at each screening.
To myself and many other kids who came of age in the 1980s, The Last Unicorn made fantasy worlds accessible. I still remember the soundtrack by the mellow AM rock band America as groovy, yet solemn. I remember the animation as a little dark and psychedelic, like nothing I'd seen before. And at around 10 or 11 years old, I remember feeling twinges of fear and frustration for the unicorn, voiced by Mia Farrow—first when she received misinformation on the whereabouts of other unicorns from the tripped out, riddle-loving butterfly at the start of her journey, and again when she was imprisoned in a traveling circus. And I was especially freaked out when the harpy Celaeno screeched and squawked and ate Mommy Fortuna's (Angela Lansbury) face off near the escaped Midnight Carnival train.
I remember the tragedy and triumph. And a drunk skeleton. And a cat that seemed like it was maybe drunk, too.
The fearful, melancholy unicorn is repeatedly mistaken for nothing more than a lovely white mare as she makes her way to a castle where it is believed that a fiery red bull has driven the last of her kind into the sea. “Man no longer knows what it's looking at,” she cries as she realizes that everyone, everywhere believes that unicorns only live in fairy tales.
Along with help from a young, sweet and awkward man, Schmendrick the Magician (Alan Arkin) and a former bandit, Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), the unicorn arrives at the castle of King Haggard (Christopher Lee), gets sort of accidentally turned into a pale young maiden, is courted by a poetry writing Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges) and is harassed by a wino skeleton who, despite her transformation into a human, recognizes her as a unicorn and tries to out her to the king.
Yes, there's plenty of darkness in the film, while forces of both good and evil clash over what each wants with the unicorn, or Lady Amalthea, as she's called after Schmendrick's magic disguises her as human. There's also post-1970s mystical-trippy animation, Freedom-rock era tunes, a star-studded line up... and a reminder that it doesn't hurt to believe in a little magic from time to time.