Monday, February 15, 2021

Unicorns in the Sea

I was surprised to see The Last Unicorn on The Criterion Channel. I don't think it's getting a Criterion edition release on disk but the Criterion Channel seems to put up movies from outside their collection now and then. In any case, the print they're streaming of course looks fantastic.

It's also the version with all the swear words left in. Though the only one I remember is Prince Lir saying "Damn" when he's trying to write a poem. If I wanted to hear Jeff Bridges swear I suppose I could just watch The Big Lebowski again.

The background art always impresses me. It was done by future members of Studio Ghibli in Japan though the design overall obviously owes a great debt to Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It has that wonderful medieval tapestry quality of being oddly boxy and not quite conforming to correct visual perspective.

I loved this movie when I was a kid but few of the movies I loved as a kid resonant so strongly as I grow older. I guess that's inevitable for a movie about incremental death and the struggle against it. The unicorn (Mia Farrow) is immortal but her quest is to find her vanished race. Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury) seeks immortality by capturing immortal beings, figuring then her memory at least will live forever. And King Haggard (Christopher Lee) talks about how he imprisoned the unicorns because the sight of them makes him feel young.

Haggard is practically a drug addict. One might even interpret the white horses riding the waves as heroin, I suppose. But in his chronic boredom and lack of interest in anything that doesn't make him happy, he allows his castle to decay and his kingdom to fall into neglect. Christopher Lee's performance really elevates what might otherwise just seem like a petty character. It reminds me of the song "Sunny" by Morrissey who submits a plea to a drug addict friend to sober up even as he admits that the addict "is not even wrong" about what he perceives of the world that makes it worthy of escape. Lee makes Haggard seem wise for being so incredibly selfish.

Mia Farrow also gives a wonderful performance as the unicorn. An aloof, immortal being, she could easily have been boring but Farrow's performance has such an irrepressible vulnerability, she always sounds like she's on the point of being shattered. Obviously that helps with the dramatic tension.

I love that Rankin Bass aesthetic with the art noveau-ish, excessive contour lines. I'm so glad The Last Unicorn has a decent edition widely available. Now if only someone would do the same thing for Rankin Bass' The Hobbit.

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