Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Unico" and Childhood Movie Trauma

When we're very small, all movies are darker and more frightening than they are intended to be. Even if a character is only a year or two older than you are, that difference feels huge. Threats linger longer, and danger feels more real. It's rough to be a little kid, when emotions aren't tempered, and often feel out of our control. I think that's why the movies and television that we see at that age tends to hit a bit harder, why we experience them more strongly, and fixate on them.

On the internet, you often find people popping up in movie forums or message boards trying to identify something that they saw as a kid, that stayed with them over the years. I've gone through this myself a few times, trying to connect vivid recollections of old cartoons and B-movies, like "Prisoners of the Lost Universe," "The Adventures of Mark Twain," and "Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome" with their correct titles. And when I went back to watch them, they were barely anything like I remembered, usually much lighter and sillier and fake-looking. I have some positively horrific memories of the two "Care Bears" movies, which upon later review as an adult, turned out to be embarrassingly benign.

So it's a rare treat to find one of those half-remembered old movies that really is a scary and strange and weird as the child you thought it was. Thanks to the internet in the late 90s I figured out that an old anime movie I'd been especially fascinated with as a kid was "Unico in the Island of Magic," which had been dubbed in English the early 80s, released on home video and played a few times on the Disney Channel before it promptly disappeared. Surviving video cassettes were sold for ridiculous prices on Ebay. It wasn't until I was in college many years later that I worked out how to acquire a secondhand copy. An official Region 1 version was finally released last year by an indie distributor.

After the "Care Bears," I was expecting "Unico" to be just another piece of cheap kiddie pabulum, but it wasn't. Oh, the film was certainly made for consumption by children, including comic characters with exaggerated toon-y designs, and a main character, Unico the baby unicorn, who is cuteness personified. Unico was created by Osamu Tezuka, best known for "Astro Boy," and the idea is that Unico's magic powers and goodness have troubled the gods of his world, so he has to hide from them on Earth. The friendly West Wind takes him from place to place, where he has various adventures, beating back evil where he finds it.

If "Island of Magic" is any indication, Unico's world is a very dark place. Like Astro Boy, Unico is very simple and innocent, but the threats he faces are anything but. Shortly after the West Wind drops him off this time, Unico is adopted by a little girl named Cheri as a pet. She takes him home to meet her parents, right before they're paid a visit by Cheri's estranged older brother Toby, who ran away some years ago to become the apprentice of an evil wizard. This wizard is Lord Kuruku, who discovers Toby with his family, and promptly turns them into "living puppets," identical human-shaped blocks. Toby helps Cheri and Unico escape, but has to turn all the rest of the people in his village into more living puppets. Then Kuruku takes them all back to his island, where he's building an ever-growing nightmare castle, using the transformed people as building blocks.

And that's not the most disturbing part of it. I haven't even gotten to Lord Kuruku himself, who is this floating, ever-shifting paranormal creature, able to change himself into a variety of geometrical shapes and colors, always with a pair of mad, bulging eyes. The American dub of "Island of Magic" is clumsy stuff, as most dubs were in the 80s, but the voice they created for Lord Kuruku is this electronically enhanced, barely human sounding thing, full of screeches and warbles and distorted sounds. Upon rewatch, it was actually creepier than I remembered. I've found that most people who recall seeing the movie as kids, like I did, remember it chiefly for Lord Kuruku and the living puppets.

"Unico and the Island of Magic" is actually quite a hidden gem. It was the second of a pair of "Unico" movies produced by Sanrio, back when they were trying to make a name for themselves in anime production. The animation is surprisingly good, especially the effects work for Lord Kuruku and a finale that involves a lot of large-scale destruction. Still, I don't think the movie would have had quite the effect on me that it did as a grown-up if I hadn't seen it first as a child, and I didn't have those memories of being freaked out by the scary, screaming puppet man.

Seriously, what demented, twisted mind came up with this guy?

1 comment:

  1. So glad you wrote this. I have been meaning to look this movie up because once upon a time I was like 3 years old, and this movie was on in the background... Mind you, I didn't even sit down and watch it, yet the images of kuruku (who I thought was a witch) and the people turned into bricks have been haunting me for years!! I finally researched it and apparently many kids were freaked out!