I’d heard of Studio Ghibli when I was a teenager – the popularity of Spirited Away reaching across the globe and introducing me to that style of animation – but I never really got into it until I came to Japan. The quirky characters, stylistic animation and original stories make the Ghibli films memorable and endearing. I grew to love them as much as my childhood favorites by movie giants Disney and Pixar.
I recently re-watched a favorite film from my childhood, not thinking about Ghibli when I selected it but, on watching, not failing to notice how Ghibli-esque the animation was. I hadn’t watched the film in at least a decade – a time long before I was aware of Ghibli at all. Intrigued, I did some research and discovered that this long-lost film of my childhood, made in 1982, had a connection to Studio Ghibli.
The Last Unicorn tells the story of a mythical creature who, on learning that she may be the last of her kind, leaves the enchanted forest where she lives in search of the truth. On the way, she meets Schmendrick, a haphazard and vaguely incompetent magician who aids her in her quest. The film is based on a book of the same name by Peter S. Beagle (who also wrote the screenplay for the film) which was published in 1968.
Watching the film, you can’t help but notice the similarities between the style of animations in The Last Unicorn and other Ghibli classics like The Cat Returns, Whisper of the Heart and My Neighbor Totoro. But, of course, die-hard Studio Ghibli fans will have already worked out The Last Unicorn was made a full three years before Studio Ghibli was founded – so then, who made it?
It was Topcraft who did the animation for Beagle’s screenplay, and it was produced by Rankin/Bass Productions. Topcraft also did Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, as well as many other anime and non-anime productions. The company was founded in 1972 but dissolved in 1985 when they went bankrupt. Key members of the original Topcraft team (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata) went on to buy the Topcraft studio and turn it into Studio Ghibli.
So… not a true Ghibli animation, but the heart of it is Ghibli through and through. While the original film was criticized for poor-quality visuals, the remastered version of 2007 is said to be a delightful clean-up of the original drawings. With voice talents of Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, and Christopher Lee, it makes for a highly rated, thoroughly enjoyable film. And if, for no other reason, you should watch it for the pleasure of seeing Schmendrick getting squashed between the boobs of an enchanted tree…