For Christmas, my brother and his girlfriend gave me a copy of Peter Beagle’s novel, The Last Unicorn, as well as a copy of the animated movie version on DVD.
I am an avid reader of the fantasy genre, but for some reason, never managed to find the time for Peter Beagle in the past – the only words of his I had read before Christmas last year, were quotes from Beagle which were included on the covers of various fantasy novels, in which he enthusiastically endorsed the work of other authors…
(such as one of my all time favourite fantasy novels, The Shape Changer’s Wife, by Sharon Shinn – Beagle is also a fan….)
Similarly, I devoured a great many 80s fantasy flicks on home video when I was growing up… The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Highlander, Legend, Conan The Barbarian, The Neverending Story, Return To Oz and Willow were all staples of my childhood – though I must concede most of them look very silly now, I still have a certain fondness for them…. but The Last Unicorn somehow managed to pass me by….
So, when I received The Last Unicorn as a Christmas present, I must confess that I felt a certain amount of wariness – I have friends who cite it as being one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written, and say that the movie version is just as good, if not actually BETTER than the source material…. but in each and every case these are people who first experienced The Last Unicorn as children, and I know from experience that nostalgia often makes one see the past through a rose tinted lense….
My brother’s girlfriend had determined that I would enjoy The Last Unicorn because of it’s thematic similarities to the other 80s fantasy stories listed above, that I enjoyed as a youngster and still enjoy very much to this day…. but the thing is, I doubt that I would enjoy them quite so much if it weren’t for the nostalgia factor, which makes me more forgiving of their flaws than a child of today might be…. I would be reading/viewing The Last Unicorn as a 29 year old male, without any personal nostalgia attached to it… I wondered, would this make me appreciate the story more, or less?
The story opens in an enchanted forest, where it is always springtime, owing to the fact that a unicorn resides there… said unicorn (we are never told her name, if she even has one) overhears a conversation between two hunters who are passing through, in which they let slip that her species has been driven to the point of extinction….
The Unicorn decides to leave the cosy confines of her lilac wood for the first time in ages (years? decades? centuries? Since Unicorns are immortal they often lose track of time), resolving to find out what happened to the rest of her kind, and help them out if she can… she hasn’t ventured far before she encounters a singing butterfly (in this universe butterflies can speak in the same way that parrots can) who cryptically recounts a tale of Unicorns being rounded up en masse by a sinister Red Bull and herded off to a faraway land (and no, The Red Bull did not give them wings) …
The Unicorn continues on, undeterred, and is abducted by Mama Fortuna’s Travelling Sideshow, in which she is exhibited as a freak. There she is befriended by an incompetent magician named Schmendrick, who is feeling disillusioned by his huckster lifestyle and eventually frees her, on the condition that he be allowed to join her quest and thereby prove himself as a man of real worth.
Over the course of their journeying, a third member is added to the party… the reader is introduced to Molly Grue, shortly after an inept band of outlaws (of which she is a member) attempt to rob Schmendrick and our horned heroine… but she too is disillusioned by her current lifestyle, relegated to the role of cook/housewife to a loutish wannabe Robin Hood type named Captain Cully… and she too joins the quest in order that she may lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life…
Their journey eventually leads to the barren lands of the embittered and insane King Haggerd, who it turns out has rounded up all the unicorns for himself, because to gaze upon their beauty is the only thing that can bring joy into his jaded heart.
In order that she might evade capture by The Red Bull and inconspicuously insinuate herself into King Haggerd’s court, Schmendrick transforms The Unicorn into a human woman… however, this further complicates matters, as she finds herself drawn to the King’s adopted son, Prince Lir… eventually she is forced to choose between the transitory happiness of mortal love, and the completion of her quest…
The Last Unicorn is an oddly introspective fantasy story. The narrative, in many respects, follows the archetypal episodic quest formula – with the naive protagonist called away from a tranquil rural idyll, compelled to go on a long and rambling journey to a dark faraway land, collecting colourful sidekicks along the way and confronting a series of obstacles impeding his/her progress…
But Beagle doesn’t spend much time fleshing out the social/environmental intricacies of this medieval fantasyland (unlike other fantasy authors such as JRR Tolkien and Robert Jordan, who wallow in such detail)… in fact, his book is rather short on descriptive passages, and he deliberately introduces anachronistic details for comedic effect (for instance, Captain Cully and his band of not-so-merry-men are seen eating tacos, and The Butterfly sings fragments of show tunes from centuries into the future) …the emphasis here is placed on the characters’ emotional development, and an ironic examination of the petty foibles of human nature generally.
For although the characters are cut from very familiar cloth, they are all imbued with a psychological depth that ensures they register as something more than mere stereotypes, and it is their flaws as much as their virtues that make them so endearing…. The Unicorn begins the story as haughty and oddly aloof from the world around her, motivated in her quest more by boredom and curiosity than any deeper, compassionate imperative… she isn’t a very likable protagonist initially, but her alien thought processes, the odd way in which her mind prioritises things, makes her fascinating to read about… and over the course of the novel she comes to understand the concept of empathy, and develops a less myopic worldview… I’m used to reading fantasy stories in which unicorns are depicted as angelic beings of pure goodness, I was taken aback by the psychological and moral complexity here…
Similarly, the antagonists are surprisingly complex figures… Haggerd emerges as a pitiful, hauntingly tragic figure rather than an imposing, menacing villain… he’s an old man stuck in the possessive and narcissistic mindset of a spoilt child, a man who has enough intellectual nous to realise that his actions are morally wrong, but does not have the self-control to reign in his base desires… there’s also something of a tragic aura to Mama Fortuna and Captain Cully, both of whom choose to live as frauds rather than accept their own limitations, and concoct elaborate lies to justify their own greed and lust for glory - as much to themselves as to other people.
Schmendrick is a character that I expected to fulfill the role of bungling comic relief, his very name being a yiddish word for “fool”… but he’s another character who surprised me with his depth… though incompetent at his chosen craft, he is much smarter than he first appears, possessing an astute understanding of human nature and a dryly cynical wit. Although Beagle gets considerable comic milage out of the ways in which Schmendrick’s various spells backfire, it’s his deadpan, sarcastic comments on the caprices of human nature that brought the most smiles to this reader’s face.
Of all the characters, Molly and Lir probably come the closest to fulfilling traditional fantasy archetypes… but they both possess an ironic, postmodern self-awareness of their position in life, they end up resisting, and ultimately rejecting, the traditionalist roles that their society (and the conventions of fantasy fiction) would assign to them.
Beagle’s novel is occassionally a bit smug and smartass in it’s self-awareness of genre tropes, and I could’ve used a bit more exposition early on
(for instance, the full extent of The Unicorn’s powers are not explained from the very beginning… and there are times when The Unicorn uses one of her powers to get out of tricky situations, a power which the reader was not informed she possessed up until then… maybe I’m just not up on Unicorn-lore and Beagle just figured he wouldn’t have to explain it because most people already know Unicorns can do these things… but I just thought to myself “well isn’t it just convenient that she happens to have that power and can use it to escape”)
The 1982 animated film from Rankin/Bass Studios is, for better and for worse, a very faithful adaptation of the novel – almost scene for scene and word for word, in fact
(as you would expect given the fact that Beagle himself wrote the screenplay)
None of the novel’s darker themes or violent sequences are toned down, and all of the intellectual and erudite dialogue remains intact… this is a very sophisticated, adult screenplay…
But how many adults will want to sit through an animated film with unicorns in it? And I do wonder if kids today will be scared to death by some of the darker moments of the story, or bored by the high falutin’ philosophical discussions…. although I’m sure my 80s self, the kid who lapped up such freaky and high-minded fantasy films as The Dark Crystal and The Neverending Story, would’ve really loved this too. It’s all too easy to underestimate the thinking capacity of children, and I’m sure there are many viewers, young and old alike, who will appreciate the fact that The Last Unicorn is an animated film that doesn’t treat it’s audience like morons.
The actual animation hasn’t exactly aged well, and I do wonder what modern audiences, especially kids spoilt by the CG of Pixar and Dreamworks, who take such advanced cartoons for granted, will make of this…. the backgrounds are very beautifully designed and finely detailed, but also extremely static… and when the characters move, they have a tendency to strike a series of stock poses over and over again.
The limitations of the animation didn’t really bother me when I was watching it, I was too wrapped up in the story, and in it’s own antiquated way, it’s quite beautiful… but I’m a child of the 80s, and I do wonder if younger viewers would be so forgiving…
Another thing that hasn’t exactly aged well is the soundtrack, featuring songs written by “love him or hate him” songwriter Jimmy Webb (of “Wichita Lineman”, “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”, “Highwayman” and “MacArthur Park” fame) and performed by mellow folk-rock group, America (“A Horse With No Name” and “Tin Man” being their principle claims to immortality)… I’ve never been a fan of America, they are so damned relaxed that they make The Eagles seem perky in comparison, and I generally prefer my rock stars on the bombastic side…. and Webb can be a very clever songwriter, but sometimes he’s so determined to show off his own cleverness that he overwrites and, funnily enough, ends up coming across as stupid (“MacArthur Park” being the best example of this).
The songs in The Last Unicorn drifted over me like a soft, cool breeze – they serve as pleasant background ditties for our heroes’ wanderings, and Webb is on his best behaviour lyrically speaking, no glaringly pretentious metaphors – they’re kinda soothing and happy when you are in the act of listening to them… but they leave no lasting impression on the mind… I’m struggling to recall much of the songs as I am writing this. Rather typical of America’s output, then.
Still, even if the songs are largely forgettable, at least there is nothing glaringly awful, I suppose that’s something to be thankful for.
And even if the music is somewhat bland, the voice acting does lend some gravitas to the proceedings. A lot of modern animated films recruit well-known celebrities to voice the main characters, and said celebrities don’t take the job seriously, they just goof off and play themselves, resulting in characters that come across more as caricatures (the Shrek movies are the nadir of this trend, in my opinion – it’s the number one reason I can’t stand them)
The Last Unicorn boasts some well known names – Mia Farrow (as The Unicorn), Alan Arkin (as Schmendrick), Angela Lansbury (as Mama Fortuna), Christopher Lee (as King Haggerd) and Jeff Bridges (as Prince Lir) but they all make a genuine effort to subvert their own personalities and get under the skin of the characters they are playing. When the characters opened their mouths, I always heard the voice of the characters – I wasn’t taken “out of the moment” and never thought that I was hearing the voice of a celebrity goofing off.
Ultimately, neither the book nor the film really lived up to the hype surrounding them… I wouldn’t say that the book is one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written and the film certainly doesn’t stand up as one of the greatest fantasy movies of all time… but they are both unusually intelligent, thought-provoking and heartwarming works of art that are worth the time to check out. If you don’t go in expecting to be blown away by a timeless masterpiece, then you’ll probably be able to appreciate this story’s rather quaint charms.