Saturday, June 28, 2003

"The unicorn lived in a lilac wood. . . ."

The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite books -- a fairy tale that grows in depth and meaning with each re-reading. It's lyrical, dark, idealistic, and funny. And an animated movie was made from it in 1982.

I know a lot of people who found the story through the movie love the movie. Maybe they should skip the next bit.

Now, by the time the film came out, I already knew the book by heart. I was bound to be a trifle critical of anything in it that wasn't up to the standard of the book. But my God, could there have been a worse time to make a serious animated movie?

This was before the triumphant re-release of Fantasia. Before all the grand new Disney films, before Pixar Studios, before computer animation. Cartoons then were cheap, jerky, and ugly. It was all supposed to be for kids, preferably kids who had no taste, subtlety, or experience of elegant animation that flowed instead of hopping.

In the interests of economy, I suppose, the story was trimmed. With a chainsaw. There just wasn't time to establish character or make Schmendrick's problem meaningful. Beagle's haunting, beautiful songs were replaced by a bunch of schmaltzy Broadway numbers.

The visual details, so important to a film, were just wrong. The human characters were caricatures, ugly and silly. The harpy looked like nothing on earth -- certainly not a winged woman whose hair was "thick about the hating human face." And the lilacs were clearly designed by someone who had never seen lilacs growing but had once overheard a drunken gardener describing them.

We watched this horror again a few months ago, and my first thought was, Please God, let someone remake this mess. Because this is one of the greatest of all fairytales, and it deserves a fine film as much as LOTR does.

Now Peter Beagle and friends are remaking it. They're not dissing the original film, but they're now able to make it look better and to include the whole story. The designs that are up already are lovely. The Unicorn herself brought tears to my eyes. Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival looks eerie, dark, real. The costumes are just right. The storyboards show the blend of lyric beauty and smartass New York attitude that make the book so memorable.

I am so glad.

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