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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Last Unicorn

February 21st, 2011

The Last Unicorn - Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack - Buy from Amazon

The Last Unicorn was made in the early 1980s by Rankin/Bass. When I hear the name Rankin/Bass, I immediately think of claymation Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town. The Last Unicorn was one of the company's few theatrical releases, but it never truly found an audience there. (Since then it has developed a loyal fan base on the home market.) It has been released on DVD recently, twice, and it is now making its Blu-ray debut.

The Movie

The film starts with two hunters traveling through a lush green forest. The elder of the two tell the younger that this is a unicorn's forest and as such, the magic of that magnificent creature rubs off on the other creatures so no game will be found there. As they leave, the old hunter yells to the unicorn to not leave the safety of its forest. The world is no longer safe for unicorns and it is the last of its kind.

Of course, upon hearing it is the last of its kind, said unicorn ventures forth from the safety of its forest to find the rest of its kind. She learns of a red bull that has herded all of the other unicorns, but she's unsure if this story is true, as her source, a butterfly, seems less than reliable. As she travels, she becomes a little more optimistic, as outside her forest humans only see her as a white mare. Perhaps these hunters only think there are no more unicorns because they can't recognize one when they see it. Sadly, this is not true of everyone and while sleeping on the side of the road, the unicorn is captured by Mommy Fortuna, a witch who uses her powers to trick people into believing her mundane animals are mythical creatures like the manticore. She does have one other truly mythical creature, Celaeno, a harpy. One of Mommy Fortuna assistants, a wizard named Schmendrick tries to free her with his magic. Unfortunately, he's not quite a true magician, although he is a handy thief and is able to slip the keys off of Ruhk, Mommy Fortuna's hunchback henchman.

Continuing toward King Haggard's land, where the Red Bull and the unicorns are, Schmendrick is captured by Captain Cully, the leader of a band of outlaws. (He's less Robin Hood and more of just a robber.) While that encounter is less than rewarding for Schmendrick, Cully's compainion, Molly Grue, recognizes the unicorn for what she is and decides to join their quest. As they get near to King Haggard's castle, the Red Bull attacks and in an attempt to save her, Schmendrick accidentally turns her into a human.

It is in this state that the three arrive at King Haggard's castle: Schmendrick, Molly Grue, and Lady Amalthea. They learn that outside of King Haggard himself, the only people in his castle are his adopted son, Lir, and just four men-at-arms. While they stay there looking for evidence of the unicorns, Lir falls in love with Lady Amalthea, but the longer Amalthea stays in her human form, the less she remembers of who she really is.

Will she complete her quest in time, or in the end, will she choose love over returning to her immortal form?

Certain films you watch and you say, "This is the product of its time." Even if it is a good movie, you know in ten or twenty years a lot of what made it great today,will tmake it feel dated. (Pop culture references are usually the culprit.) For the most part, that is not the case here and it has a very timeless quality to it. (Except the music, which absolutely feels early 80s to me.) On a similar note, some aspects of the film feel anachronistic, like the songs the butterfly sings, or just the way some of the characters talk. They feel too modern and not medieval enough. This includes Jeff Bridges as Lir. On the other hand, Christopher Lee is amazing, as always.

The story itself has a few parts that are a little dark for younger kids, while the ending has a Hans Christian Andersen like feel to it. That should absolutely be taken as a compliment.

The animation is mixed. Rankin/Bass was never known as a top tier animation company, but they got some great work out of the Japanese studio they used. (In fact, the studio they used was later hired by Hayao Miyazaki and helped form Studio Ghibli, the studio responsible for Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc.) The background looks great, but the animation is limited at times and some of the designs lack detail, so they don't feel truly part of this work. Sometimes the character feel like they are animated on top of the background, instead of being part of the background.

The Extras

Extras on the Blu-ray include an audio commentary track with the writer, Peter S. Beagle, and his publisher, Connor Cochran. Immortal Characters is a 13-minute featurette on the making of the movie, from finding a studio, casting the voices, producing, etc. Very in-depth, for its running time. The Tail of The Last Unicorn is an eight-and-a-half minutes interview with Peter S. Beagle talking about how he came up with the story. There's an image gallery for an art contest, a narrated image gallery on Peter S. Beagle, and finally a narrated look at Peter S. Beagle's career.

The video is sadly mixed with some scenes that are quite poor with a lot of flecks and grit. Not many scenes, but some. On the other hand, the colors are great and the details are by far much more detailed than any other previous home market release. Considering the film was a low-budget animated film from nearly 30 years ago, it looks great. Just don't compare it to big-budget first run releases, or even remastered Disney classics. The audio is likewise good; in fact, it is arguably better than the video. The dialogue is clear, while there are a few action scenes that put your surround sound speakers to good use. Also, you can listen to the film in its original form, or the censored version that was released a few years ago. (Molly Grue's first reaction to seeing the unicorn includes a couple utterances of , "Damn you!")

Finally, it only costs $15. That would be a bargain for shovelware, while this film includes a few new extras, plus the original DVD release.

The Verdict

Fans of The Last Unicorn will absolutely want to pick up the Blu-ray / DVD Combo Pack, while it's worth a blind buy for fans of the book. If you haven't seen it, at least give it a rental. Odds are you will want to add it to your collection.

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