September 19th, 2017

Firechick's Movie Reviews: The Last Unicorn

I give this beautifully animated Rankin/Bass movie...a 62/100.

Let me ask you: have you ever heard of Rankin/Bass? Of course you have, and even if you haven't, you're guaranteed to have seen at least some of their movies, namely their animated or stop-motion Christmas specials. Frosty The Snowman, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town, etc. But did you know they made non-holiday movies as well? You didn't? No surprise there. Funnily enough, they made some pretty good animated movies. They even made several animated movies for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, BEFORE Peter Jackson got his hands on the franchise! Bet you didn't know that, now did you? I sure didn't! But we're not here to talk about LOTR. Instead, we're going to focus on another Rankin/Bass animated book adaptation: The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle. A lot of my animation-loving friends had seen it and loved it. I even heard that many of the Japanese staff who worked on the movie went on to work for Ghibli, which is saying something! I had intended to watch the movie, as I thought it looked great, but could never find it. Then I randomly found it on Netflix and sat down to watch it. At first, I thought it started out great!...but the second half went downhill. Hard.

Sorry, but I don't think this movie is the masterpiece people make it out to be. Believe me, I want to like this movie more than I do!

Based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, the story centers around a unicorn who lives in an enchanted forest, but has never seen others of her own kind. When she overhears some soldiers saying all other unicorns are gone, the unicorn can't believe it, so she leaves her safe forest and goes on a journey to find the rest of her kind. On the way, she meets a rookie magician named Schmendrick and an old lady named Molly Grue, who accompany her on her quest to find other unicorns and see what the deal is with this so-called Red Bull. Yeah, that's literally it. The story isn't much to write home about, as it's been done many times before in many other mediums. But that's not to say it can't be done well. At first, the story is rather interesting. However...we'll get to why it went downhill later on.

Anyway, onto the positives: first off, the animation. I don't think I need to say much about the animation other than it's just beautiful. Every scene is painted and drawn in painstaking detail, from the bright, lush colors of sunlit forests to dark, brooding caves and castles near the stormy seas, perfectly capturing the atmosphere and feel of a scene. The artwork really sucks you in, which really helps the immersion. I did notice a couple goofs here and there, such as the occasional body part being oddly proportioned, but it's a cartoon. What do you expect? Also, considering this was animated by people who would eventually go on to make Studio Ghibli, is it really any surprise that the animation looks as good as it does?

Honestly, I didn't find the music to be very memorable even though I liked the soundtrack, but the songs were very good as far as I know. Most of them were sung by an old band called America, who I honestly never heard of. Then again, I was born in 1993 so I know nothing about them anyhow. I really did like their Last Unicorn song, which plays at the beginning and end of the movie. I did, however, find out that the soundtrack was done by an actual orchestra, and I'm a sucker for orchestras, so...forgive me for being kinda superficial here, but I'm willing to give it points just for that alone. Yeah, I'm soooo objective, right?

In the first half of the movie, the characters are...okay, I guess. Not bad, but not particularly reaching any highs in terms of character development either. Schmendrick was pretty fun, and Molly, while her characterization was inconsistent at first, eventually came into her own later on. Note how I only talk about the first half of the movie and not the second half. That's because the movie REALLY derails after the second half, and it's overall quality takes a nose dive harder than a fat man jumping into a pool. No, I'm not even kidding. Few movies and shows I've seen have transgressed from so good to so utterly bad in such a short amount of time. As much as I really want to like this movie more than I do, other than the animation, I honestly can't say anything positive about the utter mess this movie becomes. When the characters find their way to a mysterious dark castle, the movie loses all of its subtlety and does away with everything that made it good. The stay at the castle is unnecessarily padded out, the characters lose all their charms, new ones are introduced that serve utterly no purpose, and so on. The unicorn in particular really suffers when she's made to turn human, because when she becomes a human girl, she suddenly turns into this whiny, indecisive, bland, lovesick shoujo anime girl with no agency or self-awareness. Oh, and the movie introduces a love interest to her, and the romantic development between them is just BAAAD. When they first meet, the unicorn understandably doesn't want to be near him, but not two scenes later, the two kiss and make out even though they not only just met, but have no reason to even get together in the first place! The reveal at the end is not only really stupid, it also raises a lot of questions that the movie makes no attempt to answer.

I hate to be so hard on this movie, as it really could have been something great and did something with its premise. But as it is, I can't recommend it unless you want a study on how not to write a story. The Last Unicorn tries to be good, but the awful second half just isn't worth the watch.

Firechick's Anime Reviews: A Journey Through Fairyland

Rating: 82/100

Sanrio is well known for marketing their cute characters like Hello Kitty, My Melody, Batz Maru, and so on. But back in the seventies and eighties, they actually made very ambitious original movies that were considerably darker in tone than the image the company is known to project. Ringing Bell, Nutcracker Fantasy, the Unico movies, Sea Prince and the Fire Child, and the subject of this review, A Journey Through Fairyland, also known as Fairy Florence. I'm going to refer to it by its Japanese title, as the English one is too long to say. After finishing Sea Prince, Sanrio tagged Masami Hata to direct another original movie, and he was more than happy to take up the task. Unfortunately, he wound up getting too ambitious with Fairy Florence for his own good. The film took four years to produce, and it cost a lot of money to make, so much so that it basically caused Sanrio Films to shut down. Fairy Florence wound up being a bomb at the box office and there was no way it could make back the money put into its production. It didn't help that around that time, Sanrio wanted to move away from making big budget original movies and move into merchandising characters such as Hello Kitty for all they were worth. These are very likely the reasons why it's the most obscure film in Sanrio's movie catalog. But why did it fail to gather an audience?

The story is a fairly simple one. Michael is a young boy attending a prestigious music academy. He's under a lot of pressure to succeed, as his late parents were famous musicians, but he can't seem to play his oboe during orchestra practice. He spends most of his days at the local greenhouse, caring for the flowers as if they were his children. But he's often late to class and ill-practiced, unwittingly becoming the class clown as a result. The teacher tries to be patient, but after one incident too many, Michael is kicked out of school. Crushed by this outcome, he goes to the greenhouse one last time...and meets a beautiful flower fairy named Florence, who reaches out to him and invites him to the magical Land of Flowers, where they can live in escapist harmony. But they have to find a way to get there without Treble, the mischievous sprite, and his gang of lazy musical blobs, the Mokomoko. But Treble winds up becoming the least of their problems.

I first discovered the movie through this article here, as I did other anime that I've come to like, but it wasn't until Discotek Media released it on DVD in 2017 when it came back into print. I immediately bought the set as soon as I was able. One thing Fairy Florence absolutely has going for it is the animation, which is simply incredible, especially by 1985 standards. Animated with one cel per frame, which is considered a very massive undertaking that not even Disney or Ghibli does. Every movement is smooth and lifelike, and the visuals absolutely burst with color. It's like it came straight out of the 1940s, which is apt considering Hata was a huge fan of Disney's Fantasia. The giant bug monsters near the end are especially well animated and visceral. Visually and musically, Fairy Florence is very Fantasia-inspired, with segments dedicated to characters dancing across the screen in musical montages with very impressionistic direction. You'd be forgiven for thinking this was a direct spin-off of Fantasia. The soundtrack mainly consists of famous pieces of classical music used to set the mood, atmosphere, and feel of the various adventures Michael experiences in the magical lands Treble and Florence take him through. One thing I appreciate about the movie is that it displays the names and composers of the various pieces used throughout the movie for anyone who isn't familiar with them, which is definitely a plus for me, as I've never heard of Offenbach's stuff, or singular pieces like Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, or Johannes Brahms' Hungarian Dance. Of course, composer Naozumi Yamamoto sprinkles in his own BGMs as well. The soundtrack is an absolute joy, and every piece of music used here works to the movie's advantage.

However, pretty animation and a gorgeous soundtrack can't exactly hide the fact that the movie's story and characters are...rather trite and juvenile. The entire story is just Michael being whisked away into a magical land consisting of long scenes where flowers twirl, fairies dance across the screen, musical notes fly all over the place, and so on. The basic plotline is pretty thin, and Michael and Florence are rather bland as characters. Michael's just a kid who does go through decent development, but said development is pretty predictable for characters like him, and Florence is just an overly sweet, idealized woman who loves Michael just because and does everything solely for him. Treble is pretty okay, as he's just a mischievous sprite and probably the personification of Michael's love for music. Personally though, I think the movie works better if you imagine Treble and Florence being anthropomorphized personifications of his interests competing for his attention, and the worlds they create being metaphors for his differing passions. The musical sequences themselves mostly look pretty but don't further the story much, though one could argue that the story and characters were never meant to be the focal point of the film. Oh, and the English dub, while technically okay, is kind of heavy on hammy and melodramatic acting, name changes, and unneeded narration.

So basically, Fairy Florence is just a gigantic love letter to Fantasia, putting more emphasis on the animation and music than the story and characters, and I can understand why Hata wanted to go hog wild with it and make this his personal magnum opus, even if it meant Sanrio couldn't make more movies like this ever again. Sadly, audiences didn't appreciate his efforts for this movie and it didn't make its money back at the box office. Not only that, movies like this one just can't be made in this day and age anymore, and it's a pity, because Fairy Florence showcases Japanese animation at its absolute zenith and was clearly made with a lot of love and passion that you don't see in modern anime. Of course, now it's more widely available thanks to Discotek rescuing it from obscurity. Basically, Fairy Florence is an avant-garde family art film that, while nothing to write home about in the story department, is visual poetry personified, and even if it may not be one of Sanrio's best films, I do think it deserves more love than it got, especially if you're an animation fan in general.