This week marks the debut of The Last Unicorn on Blu-ray from Lionsgate Home Ent. The 1982 animated classic from Rankin/Bass has never looked or sounded better and we took the opportunity to speak with author-screenwriter Peter Beagle.
Bill Desowitz: First of all, have you seen the new Blu-ray? What do you think?
Peter Beagle: I haven't seen the manufactured Blu-ray yet. What I did see when I was recording the audio commentary track for the Blu-ray was an intermediary digital video file that wasn't as high-resolution as the final product is supposed to be. Even so, it looked marvelous -- much better than the 25th Anniversary DVD did. This time around I've been quite impressed by Lionsgate's commitment to putting out the best version of The Last Unicorn that they possibly can, within certain obvious budget constraints.
BD: What are your overall impressions of the movie?
PB: The film was and is a respectful treatment of my book. The only reservation I hold is that it is unquestionably a children's movie, whereas the book isn't just for children, but rather for readers of all ages. Regarding the design of the film, well, nobody ever gets the characters in a film to look the same as they do in an author's mind, but I think they did as well with the characters as an animated film could do back in 1982. The film was easily the best thing that Rankin/Bass ever did, and they knew that themselves. As for the animation, I'm hardly an expert like my friend, Eric Goldberg, but even I know enough to pick out the portions of the film where they animated "on the ones" and the parts where they had to fudge things because they simply didn't have the money to do more. Even so, it says something that the animation has stayed in people's heads for all the 28 years that the movie has been out there. I'm always amazed by the folks I meet who tell me that at a certain time in their youth they watched the movie over and over and over. That's not often said, even about great classic films. The directing is obviously part of that enduring impact. Same for the vocal work, too, which is wonderful without exception. There are a few places where sequences weren't completed or assembled the way I'd have liked, interrupting the film's flow and creating some confusion -- the sequence in the forest with Captain Cully and his men would be the clearest example -- but on the whole the results are excellent.
BD: What was your experience like adapting the script?
PB: Considering what a nightmare it was to work on the novel, rewriting and rewriting and doing things over and over, landing in dead-ends and having to spend weeks or months painfully clawing my way out of them...compared to that, writing the screenplay was a snap. I knew going in that there were certain parts of the book that I would have to leave out, not because I wouldn't be allowed to do them, but (a) because I knew they wouldn't fit into the running time, and (b) because -- as I've often said -- animation wants to move. It hates to stand still for characters to just pass information back and forth to each other the way they do in live action. This has gotten better recently, as we can see in various Pixar films, but it wasn't that way in the '80s. Back then animation absolutely wasn't a medium that could support scenes where people just sit and talk for long periods of time, like Schmendrick and Mollie Grue do with Drinn and the other inhabitants of Hagsgate. So Hagsgate had to go. And if Hagsgate had to go, then so did the whole subplot based around Lir's backstory, and the witch's curse on Haggard's castle. All of it. Once I had my basic cuts in mind, however, I really had a pretty easy time with the script... aside from having to justify the changes in King Haggard's dialog to Christopher Lee, who kept asking "Why?" anytime I altered something from the book.
BD: What was your impression of Topcraft, which later evolved into Studio Ghibli?
PB: Watching the film for the first time, and seeing all the Japanese names in the credits...I had no idea who any of those people were. These days, fans look on The Last Unicorn as a kind of proto-anime because of what the Japanese designers and artists and animators brought to it, but that's all hindsight. In 1980 it was still a very new idea to go overseas to do your animation production, and at the time I knew nothing about these companies or their work at all. I'm just very grateful now that they happened to brush across my story on the way to doing their own masterpieces.
BD: Given the paucity of hand-drawn features in this country, perhaps time has been kind to the animation?
PB: The work being done now, from 2D projects like The Secret of Kells to CGI projects like Tangled and Up and Despicable Me and so many others, is routinely astonishing. By comparison to what is being done now, there are certain ways in which The Last Unicorn is undoubtedly antiquated, especially if you are an animation buff. But on the whole, people who know much more about animation than I do seem to think that it has held up surprisingly well. It was one of a kind. Even The New York Times reviewer sensed that in her 1982 review -- that it wasn't quite like anything anyone else had ever done, that there was some kind of special spirit in it. I think this spirit is the quality that somehow keeps it meaningful even in the age of Wall-E and Finding Nemo.