Movie News & Reviews

‘Last Unicorn’ finds new life on author’s tour

“The Last Unicorn” is a story that has been told twice, and soon for a third time. But the story about the story is 50 years in the making, with its own obstacles and victories.

Author and screenwriter Peter S. Beagle is in the midst of a worldwide tour showing the 1982 film, and he’s bringing it to Tacoma’s Blue Mouse Theatre on Saturday — part of the Jet City Comic Show — and to the Olympia Film Festival on Sunday.

In 1962, Beagle began writing the story about a unicorn who discovers she might be the last of her kind. He was spending the summer sharing a cabin in the Berkshires with a longtime artist friend and had just published his first novel.

Every day his artist friend would return to the cabin with more paint on his canvas. Beagle, meanwhile, had just blank pages.

“I almost started ‘The Last Unicorn’ on a whim — something to show him when he came back in the evening. He had paint, I had pages,” Beagle said during a phone interview last week.

But most of what he wrote that summer he threw out. Then a marriage and life intervened.

“The Last Unicorn” was finally published as a book in 1968. Sales were slow at first, but eventually took off. The story, with its dark undercurrents, is now loved by generations.

The animated film followed in 1982, featuring the voices of Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury, Alan Arkin and others.

Bridges, who also is a musician and will be appearing Nov. 21 in Tacoma with his band, The Abiders, remembers the musical aspects of the film.

“Jimmy Webb wrote the score to that,” Bridges said during an interview last week. “I sang in that thing, too. I sang a song with Mia Farrow, who I don’t think I had ever met.”

The 1982 film will not be the last version of “The Last Unicorn.” Singer Fergie and her actor husband, Josh Duhamel, just announced they will be working with Beagle to develop a stage version.

The stage show will be a Cirque du Soleil-style traveling show, with theater-in-the-round seating. “When you enter it, you’ll be in the world of ‘The Last Unicorn,’ ” Beagle said. They are aiming for a 2017 debut.

Beagle calls himself a simple storyteller, and he doesn’t concern himself with the relatively recent creation of literature genres. “It’s only in the last decades that I’ve been thought of as part of the fantasy genre,” Beagle said.

And Beagle’s influences aren’t fantasy. He reads history, biographies and mystery fiction. “I also read the memoirs of old jazz musicians and old baseball players,” he said.

Beagle says the story is about one creature’s search for its own kind. Only recently did Beagle realize where he might have found the story: The writer, born in 1939, is Jewish. Growing up, he was aware of the horrors of World War II.

“I was certainly informed by it. There was no way to avoid it,” Beagle said.

Beagle’s story was fairly groundbreaking in the early 1960s, though Beagle downplays that.

“I don’t think I was ahead of my time. I’ve always been sideways to my time,” Beagle said.

Beagle’s editor and business manager, Connor Cochran, disagrees. “The Last Unicorn,” he points out, was the first story to use a female unicorn.

“Today, the world’s images of unicorns are overwhelmingly feminine,” Cochran said. “It’s so associated with women and girls we actually have a hard time getting boys and men to read the book and see the movie.” But once they do, “they see how dark it is.”

The current film tour started in April 2013 and will run to August 2016. By then, Beagle will have visited all 50 states, 17 countries and four continents, and reached half a million people.

But it’s a tour that almost didn’t happen. In 2012, Beagle and Cochran discovered a film distributor had an exclusive contract to show the film. Even the film’s owner, ITV, didn’t know about the arrangement.

“They had done so little business with ITV that ITV had forgotten they existed,” Cochran said.

Beagle earned no money from the film version of “The Last Unicorn” from its release through 2001. “The companies that owned it weren’t living up to the contract,” Cochran said. After eight years of legal struggles, he settled with parent company ITV. He now has screening rights, and they have a good relationship.

“Peter is going from being cheated for decades to being co-owner of the movie,” Cochran said.

The film coming to the South Sound is a digital version.

“It looks better than the 1982 theatrical film prints,” Cochran said. “It is so fun watching it on the big screen with fans who love it as much as you do.”

Beagle, who now lives in Oakland, California, lived on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill and on Bainbridge Island in the 1980s and 1990s. His new novel, “Summerlong,” is set in Seattle and will be published in 2015.

Beagle has written books he thinks are better than “Unicorn,” but he knows he’ll always be remembered for it. “It does beat the hell out of not being remembered at all,” he said.