December is Rankin/Bass month, and we’ve covered both the good, and the God awful. While Animagic is the stuff of nightmares, with it’s cold, dead, puppet eyes, Rankin/Bass’ animated features are the stuff of awesome nightmares, with their expressive, huge, cold, dead, animated eyes. It’s hard to quantitatively explain, but I’ll do my best.
The heart and soul of the Rankin/Bass collection is not the prodigiously produced Animagic stop-motion (which not only encompasses Christmas, but Halloween, New Year, and several other Holiday specials,) or even the more mundane traditionally animated Holiday fare. It was the fantasy genre that seems to have captured the pair’s heart, and to which they gave the most loving attention. I like to assume that the Holiday schlock was just to pay the bills while bankrolling amazing fantasy fare. Kind of like how I dabble in human trafficking in order to pay the bills while writing gonzo movie reviews on the inter-webs. Hey, don’t judge me, it pays well and most of the “brides” learn to love their new homes.
A sub-genre in the octopus-like kingdom of Rankin/Bass, the fantasy genre included the stellar Tolkien animations (The Hobbit, The Return of the King), The Flight of Dragons (poorly animated, but featuring an absolutely terrifying James Earl Jones), and the crown jewel, The Last Unicorn. The animated company involved carried this unique art style into the Saturday morning television world, and you may recognize the stylized eyes and hair in their two best products, ThunderCats and SilverHawks.
The art style was heavy on pastel and muted colors, like a medieval tapestry given motion. Hair and clothing was wispy and flowing, and the facial features were exagerated: artistically in the case of The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, and ThunderCats; garishly in the cases of The Flight of Dragons and SilverHawks. Loving attention was lavished on weapons, including the named swords of Tolkien, Lionel’s Sword of Omens, and the staffs of the wizards that populate these worlds. The Black Arrow of Bard in The Hobbit is so lovingly detailed, it should be a museum piece. Other flourishes of note are the varied and whimsical design of mythical monsters, especially dragons, which are the second most populous creature in Rankin/Bass land after wizards. Not a bad hierarchy if I say so myself.
Another note-worthy feature of the fantasy set from Rankin/Bass, the sound work is absolutely top notch. Top tier talent such as Christopher Lee, James Earl Jones, Alan Arkin, and Mia Farrow are given hearty roles to sink their teeth into. The music is ringing and orchestral, hearkening back to the epic music of Wagner. The sound effects are iconic. The noise Sting makes when dispatching a foe, the silky hiss of the Black Arrow, and the piercing blast of dragon fire all resonate. Only Jim Henson managed to equal these fantasies when it came to unique and memorable sound-work.
You’re a real Schmendrick, you know that right?
In an enchanted forest, the last of the unicorns lives out her days in blissful ignorance. She is slightly troubled by the lack of her kind, but it is only when a traveling butterfly (a bee-bopping Robert Klein) tells her of the fate or her brethren that she awakens to the awful truth: she is the last. She bids her home good-bye and heads out to see what has become of them. It’s downhill for her from here on out.
She is quickly overwhelmed by a sleazy, worn out world that sells novelty for a pittance. She is captured by Mommy Fortuna, a haggard sorceress played with tremendous range by Angela Lansbury, and penned up in a magical menagerie of grotesque creatures, mostly mirages, of which she and the harpy are the only true mythical beasts. The bumbling apprentice to Fortuna, the would-be-wizard Schmendrick (once again an exquisitely cast Alan Arkin) befriends the unicorn, and the pair stage an escape, where the harpy (who deserves both an Oscar for supporting role and a place in every child’s nightmares) figures heavily into the equation.
On the road, the duo gain the aid of the jaded Molly Grue in a surreal encounter with highway bandits. The encounter is disturbingly and wonderfully adult, with Molly as the jilted lover of the bandit captain, and the profane banter of the crew and the overall scene is crass, dangerous, and no-nonsense. Rankin/Bass were not above including the seamy side of their fantasy worlds, and pulled very few punches in telling an engaging story.
The newly minted trio head toward their destination, the castle of King Haggard (in a great voice acting cast, almost over-played by Christopher Lee: the baddest man in cinema.) Just at the edge of the domain, the Unicorn is attacked by a monstrous, flaming Red Bull. The unconscionable amount of caffeine and sugar, plus FDA unapproved levels of Taurine and Guarana quickly over-power the young unicorn, and she is about to be destroyed when Schmendrick lets fly with a half-baked spell, turning the unicorn into a sexy naked girl. Not swinging that way, the Red Bull takes a powder, looking for more quadrupeds to harass.
The Unicorn/Sexy Naked Girl is understandably shocked. She now knows what attacked her kin, and is now trapped in a two-legged mortal vessel, prey to all of it’s failings and emotions. Mia Farrow does a credible job as the Unicorn/Sexy Girl, and is at her best when portraying the violated and raw young girl. I hate to hazard a guess as to why that is.
The three arrive at the castle, to find it mostly deserted. The king is mad, and only keeps a court of three, plus his dude-tastic adopted heir, the Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges, naturally.) The only balm to the king’s madness is his treasury of trapped unicorns, which he has herded into the sea, to ride the waves as sea foam for his pleasure. Schmendrick and Molly gain reluctant admitance to the castle entourage, and the Prince Lir is all kinds of smitten by the lovely Sexy Naked Girl. She has clothes by this point, but I’m just going to keep calling her that, if it’s OK with you.
Long story short, the foursome (man, another hour of this movie and it the party would have been larger than a Final Fantasy roster) discover the lair of the Red Bull, attempt to destroy it, and have all sorts of problems with that. Love becomes the one trait that the unicorns lacked, and allows the last unicorn to triumph in the end. Plus Christopher Lee falls screaming to his death. So a good time is had by all, really.
Once again, the voice acting is top notch here, possibly more-so than in the Tolkien adaptations. The art style, perfected in the earlier films, is probably at it’s finest: the monsters are incredible, and the humans wear their defining traits on their persons, though not shabbily-so. The music is breath-taking, including a score recorded by folk-rock band America, who recorded a wonderful title song for the film. Overall, the production value of this piece is quite high.
If you have seen either of the Tolkien movies, or perhaps enjoy a well-paced adventure tale with characters that pack substance and depth, you are heartily recommended this title. Or you could go watch Frosty the Snowman for the millionth time…