JENSEN FARLEY PICTURES' animated fairy tale The Last Unicorn confirms, by default, that only Walt Disney had what it takes. Although Unicorn contains some innovatively clever characters, the piece as a whole lacks the fluidity of images, the magnificance of each character's movements, and the timelessness of plot that give Walt Disney productions their eternal appeal. Like other recent endeavors to animate fantasy books--Tolkien's The Hobbit, for example--the adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn fails to capture through animation all the intricacies of plot and description usually woven by words.
Much of the power of such a book, missing in the film, may stem from each reader's opportunity to form his own image of the characters. In the animated version, Beagle's fantasy unicorn becomes a stereotypical white horse with a horn. And the voices of actors reading the lines, background theme music and songs only interfere with the delicate unfolding of the plot.
In The Last Unicorn, a unicorn--supposedly the last unicorn left in the world--decides to leave her magical forest to find out the fate of her fellow unicorns. She goes on an Oz-like quest to find the kingdom of King Hagerd, where the Red Bull lives. This losthsome beast has been doing something terrible--it's unclear what--to all the other unicorns, whom he is holding prisoner.
The same rolling green hills, large dark forests and blue sky with willowy clouds dominate the landscape throughout most of the unicorn's journey. Gorgeous natural occurrences make some scenes--rain falls onto rushing rapids, or an ancient castle totters over the edge of a tremendous precipice. The occassional glimpses, though, don't compensate for the monotomy of the rest of the terrain.
Regrettably, the same inconsistency occurs in specific character animations. The animators neglected to give their legendary figure any unusual details which would identify it as a truly mythical beast. They do better later on, when the unicorn is temporarily transformed into a woman; the grace in her figure, her watery purple eyes, and the glimmering mark on her forehead replacing a horn endow the woman with a unique innocence.
The fairy-tale characters which the unicorn meets show the same lack of inspiration. Schmedrick the nincompoop wizard, dressed like most eccentric magicians, rescues the unicorn from the evil magical captivity of Madame Fortuna, dressed like most short, ugly witchlike hags.
ONLY THE RED BULL and a few other downright evil characters show glimpses of animated genius. Every detail of the red-pink bull steams with uncontrollable evil--especially the transparency of its imposing body. Two peripheral characters--Captain Cully the peg-legged pirate cat and a pile of bones forming a distorted skeleton--momentarily memorize the audience, as doss the terrifying flying beast Harpy, the evil counterpart of the unicorn. Otherwise, a dearth of fluid detail hampers the illusion.
Even the star-studded cast of voices and the original music and lyrics of Jimmy Webb can't maintain a patchy plot. Hearing Mis Farrow as the Unicorn. Alan Arkin as Schmedrick, and Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir if anything detracts further from the movie's fluidity; their professional voices are too trained and rhythmic to be convincingly dubbed onto cartoons.
It's just as well that The Last Unicorn falls short of becoming as animation classic, because seeing such mundane, stereotypic images of unicorns only makes the beasts truly extinct. Such a Saturday-morning-cartoon style of animation cannot sustain a two-hour fantasy. Unicorns, after all, belong in the realm of the imagination.