17 Jul 07

Just finished watching The Last Unicorn for the first time.

I know several people who love this film. They all saw it first when they were kids. And I think that explains their love. I just don’t think it’s a great film.

Why? Well, I’m no big fan of America’s music; it’s okay, but it’s just okay. The voice work is superb. The colors are perfect. But the animation…, well, there are several aspects to animation, and it always annoys me when people criticize “the animation” of a piece. So, let’s break that down.

  1. First, there’s the aesthetic beauty of the art. Does it look beautiful, or does it look like Star Trek: The Animated Series? Full marks here. I admit I love Rankin-Bass’s designs, but beyond that the backgrounds are lovely and the colors are just right.
  2. There’s the sheet count. How many frames of animation (drawings, or sheets) are in an average minute of film? More is better (generally). ”The Last Unicorn has a pretty good sheet count for an animated film. Not Disney, but not Space Ghost.
  3. There’s the quality of the drawings. Do the characters look the same in each shot? Are characters facing the right directions when the shot changes? The Last Unicorn is, again, pretty good in this department—there are several places where characters are pointing the wrong direction after a shot change, but generally the characters look the same from shot to shot.
  4. Then there’s the realism of the characters. How do people walk? Are they stiff or natural? When a girl puts on a pair of shoes, does she put them on one at a time, mechanically and obviously, or does she just slip them on without thinking? TLU‘s not so hot on this score. Lots of weird gestures. If I’m making a point during conversation, I don’t wave my hand back and forth across my chest. When I walk, my arms aren’t hanging stiff at my side.

So, the animation is mediocre. There are good qualities to it, but much of the physical acting is depressingly stiff.

Then again, most of the Japanese staff went on to make a little film called Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, which is better than this but does suffer from some stiff character movement.

The writing, unsurprisingly, is excellent. Some great lines in there. And while I was annoyed by the trite obviousness of the first two-thirds of the film, I was surprised when it pushed at the fourth wall as the characters debated meta issues like the requirements of the heroic form. Neat, though a bit jarring.

And the end was great (I’m amused that Miyazaki cribbed elements for the ending of Nausicaa).

So, overall, much as I’m sorry to say…I didn’t much like The Last Unicorn.

A small voice warns me of hubris. It whispers in my ear, spinning a memory. I feel the cool air of the movie theater, and the presence of the girl at my side. I was nine years old. I was drinking in the greatest animated experience of my young life: An American Tail. If there’s one reason that I’ve watched hundreds of animated films and series, that’s the reason.

But An American Tail had many, many more flaws than The Last Unicorn. I couldn’t see past them then, and I can’t see past many of them now. That movie formed me.

And so, if this film formed others, who am I to judge too harshly?

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