Discussion on the Speculative Faith Blog is centering around the new Peter Jackson Hobbit film. I brought up Rankin-Bass’s version of it, and that reminded me of their other big fantasy film-The Last Unicorn.
It’s based on the novel by Peter Beagle, who wrote the script. The Japanese animators who worked on this film actually became part of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli later on, and they worked on the wonderful classic Nausicca in the Valley of the Wind. The voices are A-list: Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Lee (!)
The story is about the Last Unicorn, who one day wanders out of her protected, holy meadow to find what happened to the rest of her kind. She is captured by an evil sideshow act, and freed by the clownish magician Schmendrick. She learns of a dark king who has captured all of her kind, and goes to confront him.
But the king, and his servant, a massive fiery bull, are too much for her. In desperation, Schmendrick surrenders to the will of the magic, and casts a spell.
He changes the Last Unicorn into a mortal woman.
Now virtual prisoners in King Haggard’s crumbling ruin of a castle, they must find a way to defeat the fiery bull. But time is running out. For with each day the Lady Amalthea becomes more and more human, and soon we will have no more free unicorns in the world.
The film has its bad points. Beagle was too fond of anachronisms, and sometimes they jar if you recognize them. Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges cannot sing to save their lives. But there’s a mournful, haunting beauty to it unusual in a children’s film, straight down to the title track sung by the band America. It’s very much a story about the magic going away in life, and the emptiness of one man managing to destroy so much.
And oh, the scenes. A breathtaking one is when we find out what King Haggard has done to the unicorns the red bull captures. The bull drives them into the sea, and then the characters look out at these massive waves full of unicorns that are just floating on the whitecaps, locked in a sea of oblivion they cannot escape. It’s an unearthly scene impossible to do in any other medium. The animation is breathtaking in general, too. When CGI movies and series like reboot and the original Toy Story start to look more dated as time goes by, this looks even more impressive at DVD quality. Let alone Blu-ray.
But some of the scenes are amazing. Mammy Fortuna, shouting to the sky at the Harpy she forced to do her bidding in her show. “You’ll remember me! No matter how long you live you’ll remember I caged you!” Haggard in his dead castle, or the beautiful valley the unicorn lives in, one that never stops being green. So many lovely moments.
I don’t know if it’s intentional either, but there’s some very, very subtle Christian symbolism in the film. “Magic, do as you will!” Schmendrick cries out when everything else is lost. But it’s not a spell, and then he is not the conjuror he wishes to be: he is praying, and a vessel. A prophet, a miracle-worker. And the only unicorn that can defeat the red bull, and drive him into the sea instead? One who has become human, and unicorn both. It’s not a perfect analogy, but faith and the loss of it are a part of the story.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy the blu-ray and ebook again.