The New Unicorn

01 Mar 2007

Last night we received our new copy of The Last Unicorn movie on DVD — a copy autographed by Peter S. Beagle and personalized “for Veronica Ruth!”

This edition is widescreen, not pan-and-scan. That makes a lot of scenes much more visually appealing. In some scenes there are characters in the frame that I don’t remember seeing at all in the pan-and-scan version! The visual noise floor is a little bit better and the colors are more vivid and full. There is still some flickering as frames change in brightness and some unevenness in color — for example, sometimes the Lady Amalthea’s hair seems to change color from frame to frame — but I suspect these artifacts are present in the original negatives.

The soundtrack, which really gives life to any animated film, is considerably better. There is much more of a stereo image, a better frequency response, and the music cues and the voiceover don’t tend to blur together into mush. The “wow” (wobbling pitch) of the pan-and-scan version is reduced, so (for example) Mia Farrow no longer sounds horribly out of key when she sings her soliloquy “Now that I’m a Woman.”

Unfortunately, though, it is still evident that much of the music, particularly the America songs, is poorly recorded. In this DVD edition it is crisper, but there is still quite a bit of noticeable wobbling in the guitar, harpsichord, and string sounds, and to a lesser extent in the vocals. In part, I’m hearing the differences between the recording technology the early 1980s and of today, but to my ear the recordings aren’t even up to snuff when compared to other recordings from the time. If the original tracks still exist separately, it seems to me there remains an excellent opportunity for a complete remix. Even if the individual tracks are in poor condition, it seems to me that some restoration or re-recording would be possible; after all, even a relatively humble computer-based studio now has the capacity to record new tracks using samples or software synthesizers, apply pitch correction and noise reduction, and mix multitrack recording with audio quality far beyond the wildest dreams of the original producers.

I just read on Wikipedia that apparently the new release runs 4% faster than the original, because of the difference in frame rate between PAL and NTSC. I’m somewhat embarassed to report that I did not notice this difference, even though it must mean that the soundtrack runs slightly faster!

Anyway, despite my nitpicking on technical grounds, this edition is a big improvement, and it is a terrific animated movie. I am very happy that our daughter has a signed copy and that we’ve been able to help support the author directly. You can still order autographed copies here and I urge you to do so!

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