Some movies just stay with you. Admittedly, I didn’t rewatch The Last Unicorn over and over as I did with more mainstream animated classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. As you might imagine, Disney loomed large in my childhood, but The Last Unicorn is very much not a Disney movie. It was actually made by Rankin/Bass Productions, who were also behind all those odd, whimsical Christmas specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and The Little Drummer Boy.
Don’t get me wrong, I really like Disney movies most of the time. At this point, I almost feel like I have no choice, since they now own basically everything I love: fairy tales, comic books, and now, the ultimate sci-fi saga Star Wars. It just makes it so much more refreshing to see another kind of fairy tale, with a different kind of story which was very much ahead of its time in that it feels like it was a movie marketed for kids with adult values and sensibilities. Part of the reason for this is just timing. The film came out in 1982, during an era when Disney was years away from its Renaissance and churning out more odd, nontraditional fare like Return To Oz and Tron. Then there’s that voice cast. Does it ever boast some great talent, before such casts became a regular part of animation.
The story is simple enough, with the titular unicorn (gracefully voiced by Mia Farrow) out on a quest to discover if she really is the last of her kind. She soon hears stories of the others being chased into the sea by the Red Bull at the behest of King Haggard (Christopher Lee, told you this cast is pretty epic). So she journeys to his kingdom to find the truth. On the way, she picks up the inept magician Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) who yearns to become a great sorcerer, and a jaded woman named Molly (Tammy Grimes), who is actually one of the most interesting characters in the story. Her heartbroken, angry questioning of why the unicorn didn’t come into her life 20, or even 10 years ago, is one of the film’s most poignant scenes.
I don’t say the most, because that honor would be reserved for when the trio comes to Haggard’s kingdom, and the Red Bull attacks the unicorn. Just as she is about to be driven into the sea forever, Schmendrick desperately casts a spell that transforms the immortal animal into a mortal woman. Her nakedness emphasizes her horrified reaction to her new form. You don’t have to look hard for the metaphor, as a vicious attack by an animal traditionally associated with masculinity and male virility results in a female character’s body being transformed against her will into something that repulses and terrifies her.
This is actually the part that stuck with me when I watched it as a kid, and how Molly was also horrified by this event, fearing the unicorn will go mad from the experience and begging the oblivious Schmendrick to change her back. Such an event speaks to the very essence of the experience of being female in a world where women are seen as possessions to be desired, controlled, and above all owned.
The unicorn, now called Lady Amalthea, is persuaded to continue on to the castle, which is empty of pretty much everyone save for King Haggard and his adopted son Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges), who is of course captivated by Amalthea. Haggard, his land, and his castle are as bereft as his name, and his actions are surprisingly pitiable. The king hasn’t trapped all the unicorns because he is evil per se, or because of good intentions awry, or even in the name of a grand dastardly plan. No, it was because looking into the sea and all the magnificent, otherworldly creatures within is the only thing that makes him happy. This emptiness, or this depression rather, is most likely why he allows the trio to remain. Even though he knows they don’t mean him well, they’re just one more new thing that will mostly likely fail to soothe his inner void.
Soon, Amalthea begins to lose her sense of herself and why she has come to the castle. As she is forced to experience mortality and human emotions, like regret and even love, she comes to return the prince’s feelings so much she begs to remain human. But Lir’s love for her has driven him to perform great deeds (mostly off-screen) for her sake, making him a hero. So he knows, in a sort of meta commentary, that the story cannot end in the middle and she must do what she came to do. Their romance is tender and sweet, but it is not a magical band-aid that will bring a happy ending for everyone and make everything better. It’s a trap that could allow unicorns to remain imprisoned forever.
This is what is really makes The Last Unicorn feel so different, even radical, because it is so clearly a story about the female experience, with none of the same tired old tropes. It has the courage to stay true to the book that inspired it, with a screenplay written by the author himself Peter S. Beagle. The unicorn’s tale is not one that ends with a wedding, nor does it emulate the traditionally male Hero’s Journey. It’s easy to see how the movie could have become that, with Amalthea becoming just another princess and love interest for the heroic Prince Lir.
There are a few problems, or just a few moments where shit just gets weird. Weird as in Schmendrick accidentally enchants a tree, who comes to life complete with cleavage so massive he almost gets smothered. Then there’s the strange, ugly bird creature that the unicorn encounters during her travels, known as a harpy. Oddly, such a animal is not spoken of as evil, merely the dark, other side of the magical coin of the unicorn’s light and beauty. The evil witch who cages it, Mama Fortuna, knows it will be the death of her but is so desperate for notoriety she’s willing to accept this is a price of fame. It’s sort of poetic…except for the fact that the harpy has three exposed breasts in a G-rated movie. Man, kids’ movies were different in the ’80s.
But the biggest problem is actually the music. Much of it is very much the product of its era, and not always in a good way. Some of the songs are enjoyable, but some just make you wince, especially when Farrow and Bridges sing. Ughhhh. Love them both, but I DO NOT want to hear them sing.
This is a surreal, highly enjoyable tale which mixes fun animation, imagery, and symbols to make a truly unique experience. Small wonder that the core team of animators went on to found a new company called Studio Ghibli.