Not exactly high praise. Yet rather tame, considering some of the things authors have had to say about film adaptations of their work. Remember Stephen King’s choice remarks about Stanely Kubrick’s take on The Shining? J.R.R. Tolkien may have parted with the movie rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but he wasn’t shy in voicing his displeasure with would-be adaptors in his lifetime. And Roald Dahl was notoriously hostile to both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Jim Henson’s film of The Witches.
The quote above comes author Peter S. Beagle. His may not be as towering a name in fantasy literature as King, Tolkien, or Dahl, but his is the pen behind significant American contributions to the genre. The greatest of those is The Last Unicorn, originally published in 1968. Charming, lyrical, theatrical, and poignant above all else, the story of a unicorn’s quest to find and free her people from a miserly king has an enchanting power comparable to anything in the European tradition that inspired it. A review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the book as feeling “almost as if it were the last fairy tale,” a notion well in keeping with the novel’s ultimately bittersweet tone. Fellow fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss called Beagle’s work “the best book I have ever read. You need to read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again.”
But the greatest novel does not always attract the greatest demand by film producers. 1968, and the following decade, saw significant strides forward in visual effects for film and landmark productions in genre fiction, but such films remained relatively rare, and likely not conducive to low budgets and apathetic treatment by cast and crew. Full-blown fantasy, particularly fantasy with as idiosyncratic a tone as The Last Unicorn, faced an uphill battle to be produced at all, let alone at quality. And even with the developments in effects during the 1970s, the sheer number of fantasy elements in the book would have been prohibitively expensive to realize.
Beagle knew all this. He never expected The Last Unicorn to be made into a film at all, but if it were, he took it for granted that it would have to be done through animation. Interest from that corner of show biz was expressed early on, by the team of Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez of Charlie Brown TV fame, but one of their wives warned Beagle, “Don’t let us do it. We’re not good enough.” Beagle had experience in animation himself; he was hired to adapt The Lord of the Rings for Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 production (an unhappy experience, according to Beagle. While one of only two credited writers on the film, and the man who made the final official pass on the script, he did at least nine drafts by his estimation for scant compensation. His dialogue and material were cut and altered during production, and he called the resulting film a “disaster.”). He still didn’t have any hope for a film when he sold the animation (and live-action) rights to producer Michael Chase Walker.
Selling film rights, of course, is no guarantee of production. The late 60s through the mid-80s are never called the Golden Age of Animation, certainly not in America. After Walt Disney’s death, his company as a whole sank into a decades-long malaise, the aging animation team dutifully turning out unambitious and uneven efforts every three or four years while training new talent. They remained the only game in town for major feature film production in American animation; Don Bluth began to establish himself in the late 70s, but his studio was always financially unsteady and eventually relocated to Ireland. Television saw a growing number of Saturday morning cartoons and TV movies over the decade, but for whatever charms some of these possess, the quality of the animation was often poor.
This was the market that Walker had to cater to when he tried to secure a production deal for The Last Unicorn. He contacted potential producers one by one. Whatever their reasons, they turned the project down. It was well down the list when Walker finally secured a deal in the early 1980s, but Beagle wasn’t at all happy when he learned about it. The deal struck was with low-budget television producer Rankin/Bass.
You almost certainly know Rankin/Bass’s work, even if you haven’t heard of them. They produced Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and all the other stop-motion holiday TV specials of that line. They also had some limited experience with feature film production: the stop-motion horror comedy Mad Monster Party? and a live-action co-production with Toho Studios in King Kong Escapes. The Japanese co-production was an outgrowth of their regular business in that country; they regularly outsourced their animation to Japan. The Rankin/Bass holiday specials remain beloved to this day (I know I don’t consider it Christmas unless I’ve watched at least a few of them during the season). The fable-like quality of their stories, the voice casts, and the design of the puppets hold a lot of quality and charm. But Rankin/Bass’s low budgets were awfully low, and looking at their work with cold, technical eyes, the production value of the animation is frequently lacking. The puppets may be well-designed, but they don’t move very well. The lip-sync with the voice track is spotty. And there are some fairly large and sloppy mistakes made in even their most famous cartoons; characters being animated to the wrong voice, editing gaffes, and so on. Their traditionally animated projects fared no better.