A review requested by Tristan F, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

If ever a film fully earned the descriptor "cult movie", the 1982 Rankin/Bass production The Last Unicorn is it. Good for the film, and good for its deeply passionate fans, who tend to describe it as one of the formative experiences of their entire childhood. But it is much too small of a cult. This is one of the most gobsmacking animated features of its generation, with a screenplay that's among the most literate ever written in the English language for what certainly would appear, from all the evidence, to be a "children's movie". I think I shan't quibble over that categorisation, though it's part of that mighty subgenre of family movies so far afield from the usual bright and bubbly comedies and adventures that the viewer who comes to it for the first time as grown-up might be forgiven for wondering if there was such a bookish and solemn child as to end up grasping all the resonances of this most autumnal of fantasy travelogues.

The film comes by its pedigree honestly, in two directions. First, it's adapted by Peter S. Beagle from his own 1968 novel, which I have not read, though my understanding is that it was pitched as serious literary fiction for adults, right in the closing moments of the era when a story about a unicorn and a magician in a pseudo-medieval world could be marked outside of rigid genre formulas. My understanding is also that the translation from one medium to the other leaves very little missing: the book, they say, is more sophisticated and its metafictional elements developed more thoroughly and to greater effect, but at the level of theme, and the simple matter of stuff that happens, it tracks quite closely.

Second, as I said, the film was a Rankin/Bass production. This does not mean that Rankin/Bass made it. At this point in its existence, the company that was best known for its well-loved, kind of shitty stop-motion Christmas specials had linked arms with a Japanese animation studio called Topcraft, which had provided some or all of the animation for several Rankin/Bass TV series and specials during the 1970s, with the eponymous Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass directing and designing the films, but with most of the work of turning the designs into movement falling to the Topcraft artists. Eventually Topcraft started making feature-length projects under Rankin/Bass's guidance, beginning with the stellar 1977 television film The Hobbit, which was the partnership's first step into the high fantasy genre. To go along with its stern, epic sense of gravity and purpose, the filmmakers hit upon a bold, beautifully ugly aesthetic that was halfway between medieval European woodcuts and contemporary Japanese anime. It was virtually the same style that they'd use on subsequent fantasy films, culminating in The Last Unicorn, Rankin/Bass's first theatrically-released feature since the 1960s, and their last (technically, an entity called Rankin/Bass Productions contributed to the 1999 animated version of The King and I, with Arthur Rankin even involved, but I am loath to count it). Topcraft itself was not long for this world: by the middle of the 1980s, the company would cease to exist, lasting just long enough to release the 1984 feature Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, whose director Miyazaki Hayao and producer Takahata Isao were so impressed by the work that Topcraft's best artists were capable of that they hired them as the nucleus for the soon-to-be-formed Studio Ghibli.

That was a long paragraph, so I want to reiterate the important part: The Last Unicorn is the more-or-less immediate predecessor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. That is a god-damned huge thing. It's not as good as Nausicaä, obviously - the list of animated features better than Nausicaä is a short and precious one, nor were Rankin & Bass directors with the enormous generosity and artistic insight of Miyazaki - but it's good enough that the lineage makes absolutely perfect sense.

The Last Unicorn not only adopts The Hobbit's medieval-ish look, it doubles down on it: the opening credits, which are not quite the first thing we see, are a hybrid of that aesthetic with a redrawn selection of images from the medieval "Hunt of the Unicorn" tapestries. It's note-perfect scene-setting, heavy with a sense of aged grandeur that's given boldface by the utterly bittersweet title song keening underneath it, written by Jimmy Webb and performed by the band America in an alternately anguished and defiant mood that's a whole world away from the sunny soft rock of "Sister Golden Hair". It leaves one in an awfully thoughtful and even dour place for an animated fantasy, and the film largely contents itself to reiterate that feeling; but first, we must get through the one part of the movie that I just really don't like at all, in which a unicorn (Mia Farrow), who has just overheard talk that she is the last of her kind, receives a visit from a blue butterfly (Robert Klein), who speaks in a mishmash of lyrics from songs written in the first decade of the 20th Century, while managing to spit out enough hints for the unicorn to learn that the rest of her species has been hunted down by the Red Bull, a spectral creature of great menace and uncertain origin. Just in five minutes, the film has done such impressive work transporting the viewer emotionally and intellectually into a state of wistful reverie, and having this barrage of anachronistic humor threatens to blow it all immediately. And I am sure there is a point to all of this. Anachronism is not unknown to The Last Unicorn. But is wielded spectacularly poorly here, and it takes a lot of will to grind through the exposition on the way to a movie that's worth the grind; though how much more it would worth without it.

Also, as a side note, whoever was animating the unicorn in this sequence gave her way too much unnecessarily busy movement. It's like she's got an itch in her neck and no hands with which to scratch it.

There follows, at any rate, a picaresque. The unicorn goes questing to find the Red Bull, encountering perils along the way - one of the first things that happens to her is to be captured by Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury), a false witch with just enough magic to craft a menagerie of fantastic beasts out of some crummy old animals. One of her assistants is the inept magician Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) - his Yiddish name, by the way, is the kind of out-of-place gag that the film works well with, largely by letting it sink into the background without comment - who helps her escape and travels with her; later on, while camping with a band of dumpy woodland thieves led by Captain Cully (Keenan Wynn), who snarkily comments on the beautiful lie of the Robin Hood legend, the wanderers are joined by Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes), a saddish middle-aged woman. Shortly after that, they encounter the Red Bull itself, and to protect the unicorn, Schmendrick draws upon a totally unsuspected well of magical power to transform her into a human. This event neatly cleaves the film in two.

The first half of The Last Unicorn is very good. The second half is breathtaking. For one thing, the plot suddenly zooms down to a single track, leaving the episodic rhythm of the first half behind. The travelers shortly come upon the castle of King Haggard (Christopher Lee), who lives in the throes of intense depression - capital-D Depression, the sort where you aren't sad because you have run out of the capacity to feel anything with hardly any company but his son Lir (Jeff Bridges) and a talking house cat (Don Messick) who looks and talks like a pirate, but is not otherwise anthropomorphic. Here, they find quite quickly that Haggard is responsible for the unicorns' disappearance, but our unicorn - hiding behind the name Amalthea - is already forgetting herself thanks to this damnable human body, while fending off Lir's romantic advances. Genre tropes through and through, but it's hard to put into words how potent the thoughts explored through those tropes can be. There are few moments in children's cinema - in the rest of cinema, for that matter - which resemble the harrowing despair with which Farrow delivers the line "I can feel this body dying all around me!" as the immortal unicorn finds herself encased in fragile, decaying human flesh. This is fantasy doing something it is uniquely suited for: calling our attention to our shared humanity by refracting it through a prism completely divorced from our own reality. We are all dying bodies, after all, and the world is going to keep moving along while we die, and there will be a world after us. That's an unpleasant truth for escapist art like the movies, and The Last Unicorn builds it into the arc of just about every character other than Lir, even the minor ones like Mommy Fortuna and Captain Cully. The metafictional aspects of the story reinforce this: it is about how we tell stories in order to have something permanent remain of us, or in Haggard's case, how we destroy stories for the pleasure of knowing we were the last person to hear them, and something will be forever lost to the rest of the world. Two characters, at different points in the movie, find comfort in knowing that they will always be remembered by a magical animal - for one it is a moment of obscene triumph, for the other it is hard-earned wisdom.

I think the best iteration of the theme comes from Molly, and Grimes's superlative performance (in a movie lousy with great vocal performances - Lee, Lansbury, Arkin in a wonderfully soft and subdued register, Rene Auberjonois in a delightful turn as an alcoholic skeleton - it's especially impressive not that Grimes isn't just the best in show, but that I don't even have to hesitate in making that claim), when she responds to the sight of seeing the beautiful, holy unicorn - the sole object of luminescent white in a movie full of muddy shades - with actual fury that the unicorn didn't appear to hear when she was a young virgin, waiting instead to humiliate her in her frumpy middle age. Later on, she berates Schmendrick for transforming the unicorn into a human with frenzied despair - both moments speak to the misery of a woman lashing out at the joyful childhood she didn't have and is now denied. Beagle has mentioned that Molly's character owes as much to Grimes as to his writing, which isn't wholly fair - he gave her that wonderful monologue of rage upon seeing the unicorn - but it's certainly the case that the performance enriches the character with a great sense of sadness that becomes contentment at the end of the film, but never threatens actual happiness. For that character alone, The Last Unicorn would be top-level fantasy, for me; the fiercely adult nature of Molly and her inner pain, incongruous but also perfectly placed within a realm of magicians and spirit bulls, is what genre films can wallop you with because you're not looking for them.

That said, The Last Unicorn still works purely as a fantasy travelogue, if that's all you want of it: the film is beset with a deep-set feeling of terrifying weirdness, from the designs (Mommy Fortuna and her tree-trunk hat; the savage, triple-breasted harpy she keeps in a cage; the amorphous, internally-illuminated Red Bull; Haggard's desiccated face; hell, even Molly's wild hair, locked into a medusa-like sprawl, is pretty otherworldly), to the simple concepts themselves. This is a kids' movie in which the hero is almost smothered by the giant breasts of an anthropomorphic lady tree; and in which a skeleton gets roaring drunk on imaginary wine before bellowing "uuuuuuuuuuunicorn" with a wrathfulness that's all the nastier for following a scene of absurdist comedy. It's strange and inexplicable as an adult; I presume it must be scary as all hell to a child, what with the savage death of one character, the monstrous implacability of the Red Bull, the unmotivated cruelty of Haggard. Might as well throw in the gentle sense of loss in the final moments: the people we like get happy endings, but they are very ambivalent, theoretical happy endings at best, and not at all satisfying in the conventional way of kids' fantasy (though if ever there was a period where bittersweet, intentionally unfulfilling endings to fantasy stories was in vogue, it was at the end of the '70s and into the '80s sword-and-sorcery boom). It is a film whose triumphant finale involves an immortal being pleased to discover that she has learned the ability to feel regret - powerful and moving, but it can't help but be disquieting as well. It's all part of the warm melancholy that The Last Unicorn has been plying since that first song, and a perfect ending to a marvelously nuanced adventure.