Children’s entertainment went fantasy-happy in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with Saturday-morning TV in particular glutted with swordsmen, sorcerers, and faraway lands. Upon its release in 1982, the animated feature The Last Unicorn got lost in the shuffle, but it’s become a cult favorite in the decades since, for a number of reasons. For genre fans, The Last Unicorn is notable because author Peter S. Beagle adapted his own popular 1968 novel, and made sure that his philosophical ruminations on myth, truth, and illusion remained integral to the plot. For animation fans, The Last Unicorn marks the pinnacle of the short-lived collaboration between Rankin/Bass (a studio with a legacy divided fairly equally between innovation and schlock) and Topcraft (a Japanese shop that later fed some of its top talent to Studio Ghibli). And for people with a fondness for mellow, twinkly post-hippie atmospherics, The Last Unicorn sports a song-score composed by Jimmy Webb and performed by America. The movie isn’t just of its time; it’s at the crux of multiple cultural moments.
But The Last Unicorn is better than just a historical curio. Some of the technical limitations of the time impede the action sequences, making the fights between beasts and monsters look choppy, and while the Webb/America songs are lovely, the movie’s instrumental score can be obtrusive. The Last Unicorn has a stellar voice cast, though—including Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury, and Keenan Wynn—and Beagle’s script is a poignant and sophisticated, telling the story of a unicorn whose journey to find more of her kind is complicated when she begins to forget who she is. The film is episodic in the best fantasy tradition, tracking the unicorn and a magician as they encounter eccentric characters and dangerous villains, while traveling to meet a king rumored to have herded all the remaining unicorns into the sea with the aid of a fiery Red Bull.
The advantage of the “series of adventures” approach is that it doesn’t get ground down by repetition. The Last Unicorn changes and deepens as it goes: as the heroine helps the crowd at a traveling circus understand the true nature of the show’s caged animals; as she revives the spirit of Robin Hood for a man who doubts the veracity of old legends; and as she becomes confined in a human body and has to heed her own advice about looking within. This is a beautiful story, rendered by Rankin/Bass and Topcraft with a grace rare in the cartoons of the era. Corny? Sure. Clunky? Sometimes. But unlike the vast majority of the children’s entertainment produced in the early ’80s, The Last Unicorn wasn’t some cheap cash-in. The people involved were honestly trying to say something. And though it took a while, eventually they were heard.
Key features: A brief but touching “look back” featurette (in which Jules Bass reveals that not only did every star they approached agree to do the film right away, but that Jeff Bridges called him out of the blue, volunteered to do it for free, and recommended his friend Jimmy Webb for the soundtrack), along with a half-hour audio essay about Beagle and a conversational commentary track by Beagle and publisher Connor Cochran.