On The Last Unicorn

Another animated film I saw as a kid quite frequently was The Last Unicorn, based on the novel of the same name by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The film is notable for being different from popular Disney fairy tales, as according to BitchFlicks‘ article, “‘The Last Unicorn’ Is The Anti-Disney Fairy Tale“:

What makes The Last Unicorn so special is it might be one of the most bittersweet and poignant fantasy movies ever made. It is the Anti-Disney film – everything that Disney fairy tales are not.

  • The characters are incredibly well fleshed out. They are deeply, deeply flawed. The Unicorn is proud (perhaps even vain), Schmendrick is overconfident, Molly Grue deeply regrets her lost youth, King Haggard is depressed to the point of selfishness, and Prince Lir does not know the difference between real heroism and pointless posturing. There are no sweet singing Princesses who can charm the forest animals here. The handsome Prince must learn how to be valiant, it does not come naturally to him. The virtues the characters value are the ones that are hardest to achieve – sacrifice, acceptance of mortality, acceptance of regret, and the twofold rush of joy and pain that being in love causes.
  • The content of the story is very adult. Other than one brief bizarre scene (more on that later), there is no comedy here. The mood is melancholy and lonely. Death is very clearly discussed, and even depicted once the Harpy kills Mommy Fortuna and her assistant, Rukh. The film’s depiction of a Harpy does not shy away from visual adult content, as she is shown to have three large and pendulous breasts with nipples. The Harpy’s breasts are not the least bit sexualized, they serve only to show that she is terrifying and female. The scene in which Schmendrick accidentally enchants a tree into coming alive and falling in love with him is also very adult in content, and almost seems like a Big Lipped Alligator Moment because it clashes with the rest of the film. The tree squishes Schmendrick against her enormous enchanted breasts, and it is clear that he does not find this predicament the least bit desirable. It is hard to determine what the film’s goal in depicting the two characters’ breasts this way was, but my best guess is that they wished to depict breasts as mere visual signifiers of a character being biologically female, not as physical targets of sexual desire.
  • Dreams don’t come true. Yes, The Unicorn succeeds in her goal to free her fellow Unicorns, but to do so she had to give up her newfound mortality, and must live forever knowing regret, and remembering the love she once had. This taint of humanity even separates her from the other unicorns, as they would have no comprehension of human emotions such as these. The other characters don’t achieve their dreams either. Schmendrick does eventually prove that he is a talented magician, but clearly will never have true control over magic. Molly Grue has finally met her unicorn, and found second love with Schmendrick, but her youth and innocence are long since gone. Even King Haggard never truly achieved his dreams of genuine happiness, as he never gained control of all of the unicorns, and was otherwise miserable when he wasn’t looking at them.
  • The handsome Prince doesn’t get the girl. Lir’s love for Amalthea is such that he tells her not to give up on her quest in order to be with him, knowing that once she becomes a unicorn again she cannot stay with him. His love is also unrequited for a time, and is only reciprocated once The Unicorn forgets what she truly is and mentally becomes human enough to feel love. So, unlike in many Disney films, the “love at first sight” situation does not go nearly as smoothly. Their love for each other does not end once Amalthea becomes The Unicorn once more, but there is now no hope for them to marry. Both sadly accept that they are to be forever separated, which is even more painful for The Unicorn because she is the only one who will experience “forever.”
  • Molly Grue’s life story is a particularly sad and poignant one. As the commonlaw wife of an infamous outlaw known as Captain Cully, she has watched her youth fade, and become endlessly frustrated with having no money, no food, and endless mouths to feed. She is incredibly kind, but deeply dissatisfied with her lot in life. When she finally meets The Unicorn, she is enraged because, unlike in fantasy lore where the unicorn always comes to a beautiful young virgin, The Unicorn has come to her when she is middle-aged and, perhaps, sexually ruined. (Being the lover of an outlaw could not have done great things for her reputation.) “How can you come to me now, when I am this?” Molly bitterly asks her. This, I think, is a commentary on how fairy tales always seem to only value the young and innocent, and see women who are no longer young and virginal as corrupted, tainted, and worthless. The Unicorn, however, recognizes Molly’s incredible kindness, and, comforting her the best she can, tells her, “I’m here now.”
  • The two antagonists of the story, Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard, contrast strongly with Disney villains in that they are very morally ambiguous. Mommy Fortuna is a powerful sorceress, who is one of the few humans who can recognize The Unicorn for what she is, rather than just as a beautiful mare. She uses illusions in her traveling caravan to give her patrons what they want to see, which is visions of terrifying mythical creatures. The Unicorn and The Harpy are the only real magical creatures she has captured. Mommy Fortuna knows that The Harpy will one day kill her, and, unlike Disney villains, is fully ready to embrace her fate and is unafraid of death. Her only desire is a perverted form of immortality – her body will die, but The Harpy will forever remember that it was Mommy Fortuna who captured her. King Haggard is even more morally ambiguous. He is not truly evil, but desperately depressed to the point where it has made him selfish. The sight of unicorns are the only things that give him joy, and make him recapture his lost youth. Unable to face life without knowing that his source of joy was available to him at any time, he instructed his pet, The Red Bull, to gather all the unicorns together and imprison them in the sea next to his castle. He has not done this for the sake of evil, but as an absolutely desperate attempt to cure his lifelong depression.
  • The themes of this story are incredibly abstract and deep. In most Disney films, you can generally glean themes about kindness, true love, achieving dreams, and conquering evil. Here, there are themes surrounding (im)mortality, regret, memory, lost love, tragic flaws, broken dreams, possessions, mental illness, revenge, and the very nature of human emotions. This is not a happy movie. It is bittersweet, at best, even though things turned out as well as they could have without there being a deus ex machina to solve everything. It is and never was intended to be a movie for children. It’s a movie for teenagers and adults who have already heard all the fairy tale cliches, and want something that will make them think rather than something that might give a superficial emotional catharsis. This movie made me incredibly sad, but it might possibly be one of the greatest animated fantasy films ever made.

Another unique feature is how weird the film actually is, as according to the A.V. Club‘s “The Last Unicorn was nightmare fuel to a generation of kids“:

There’s no way to get around it: For children, The Last Unicorn is fucking terrifying.

The Rankin/Bass animated feature, released in 1982, features a tremendous voice cast (Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, and Christopher Lee, to name a few)—but it’s not the voices that stick in the mind. Nor is it the story, though it certainly possesses many classical elements that contribute to its staying power. It isn’t the music, the animation, or the message. No, the reason for The Last Unicorn’s longevity is much simpler than any of that: It was scary as hell.

I’ve spoken with numerous people about this movie over the years, and to a one, they all respond with some variant of the following: “Oh, I remember watching that! That movie scared the crap out of me as a child.” This isn’t to say that everyone was scared to death of it, but it is to say that, to many of us who saw it at an impressionable age, death occasionally seemed the preferable option. I remember the film periodically appearing on television as a child; my most vivid memory of The Last Unicorn is of turning on the TV, seeing it materialize on the screen, and then running out of the room as fast as my little legs would carry me.

And throughout adulthood, that impression of fear remained my primary memory of the film. There are no cultural reference points for the film: No singular line of dialogue or image has become a pop-cultural touchstone. Unlike other entertainment from my childhood that I’ve since revisited, like The Muppets, I haven’t had periodic interactions with the characters or story throughout the years. Sure, I maintained some scattered impressions of the plot: something about a journey through a mysterious land, trying to find other unicorns, and I distinctly recalled a butterfly being in the mix somehow. But by and large, my recollection of The Last Unicorn was simply one of being afraid. Something about it freaked me out so thoroughly, I had blocked specifics from my mind. As a result, I had stayed away—until now. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t be all that scary any more. Still, when I queued up the film now, some 20 years later, I was apprehensive.

The Last Unicorn was not scary to me as an adult. That much was clear. But what I wasn’t prepared for—what I couldn’t have been prepared for—is just how weird the film is. Deeply, wonderfully weird. In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review, she describes it as “an unusual children’s film in many respects, the chief one being that it is unusually good.” She goes on to describe it as a “whimsical, picaresque adventure,” which is a little bit like describing the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey as a journey into unknown space. It’s not wrong, exactly, but it undersells the singular nature of the whole enterprise.

In some ways, it’s an archetypal tale for kids: a story about the value of experience and the importance of putting yourself out there to struggle through love, loss, and even regret. Our hero learns that the other unicorns have all been driven away by a legendary Red Bull, and to find them, she has to travel across the land, leaving the safe haven of her enchanted forest. Soon, accompanied by a young magician, Schmendrick, the unicorn encounters the Red Bull, and is turned into a human woman to protect her from the animal. In human form, through, she starts to forget her true nature. (Stupid, forgetful humans.) So she changes back, defeats the Red Bull, and frees all the other unicorns—who, it turns out, had been trapped in the ocean. The unicorn returns to her homeland, having experienced both love and regret, and being glad that she did. Roll credits.

But the weirdness is in the details, and the plot unfolds with the randomness and inexplicability of a game of Calvinball. Our hero first learns of her quest via a chance encounter with a butterfly—a very, very stoned butterfly. Played by Robert Klein, The Butterfly exists purely as a plot device to send our unicorn on her quest, but the movie’s script gives him so many random snippets of songs and digressions, the audience could be forgiven for feeling as puzzled as the Unicorn.

Once underway, the film seems as though it’s going to settle into a standard hero’s quest—for approximately five minutes. While sleeping, the Unicorn is captured by Mommy Fortuna, a witch who runs the Midnight Carnival. The carnival is a traveling show where she keeps caged, miserable animals, whom she has enchanted to appear fantastical. All enchanted, that is, except for a harpy; the giant evil bird is all too real, and barely kept under lock and key by Mommy Fortuna’s magic.

And this is where the film gets really dark, as the previously whimsical vibe suddenly erupts into violence. After the young magician Schmendrick, moved by the Unicorn’s plight, frees her, they free all the other animals, including the harpy. Angry and malevolent, the harpy immediately launches an air assault upon the Unicorn, who fends it off with her horn. Cue Mommy Fortuna, who has been bragging about how she keeps the harpy imprisoned, and laughing about how someday the creature would kill her for doing so. She walks toward the creature, laughing, shouting about how it “never could’ve freed” itself. To adult eyes, it looks like she’s walking to her doom; and sure enough, the harpy flies straight for her, taking her down, and presumably ripping her apart. Eating her? I’m not sure. Perhaps the book specifies. I’m not certain I want to know.

The message seems geared straight at 20th century vanities about show business. Mommy Fortuna has only one desire: to succeed in showbiz, and the hell with morality, truth, or even life itself. She embraces her death, confident that she has achieved a kind of everlasting life. Her name will be remembered, even if only by her murderer. Peter S. Beagle, author of the source novel, has stated he intended the character to be a comment on the emptiness of this mentality: “She wants to be famous and knows why she isn’t… everyone has dreams, even sloppy old witches.” There’s something singularly creepy about a character who embraces getting ripped to shreds, so far gone in her own delusions of grandeur that being eviscerated by a giant bird feels like a win to her.

Of course, this wouldn’t have been half as potent had it not been animated so unsettlingly. The madness in Mommy Fortuna’s eyes, the creases of age and anger that saturate the harpy’s face—these are jagged, unnerving touches, and all credit goes to Topcraft animation studio for shaping these horrific images. Rankin/Bass worked with the studio on more than a dozen projects, including the iconic animated version of The Hobbit. Dark and unnerving for what is ostensibly an animated children’s tale, Mommy Fortuna wouldn’t look out of place in Topcraft’s Middle-Earth.

Seen through contemporary eyes, the animation of The Last Unicorn is one of the best things about it. (Except, oddly, for the unicorn herself, who comes across weightless and overly simplified.) It possesses a lyric grace and flights of surreal fancy that set it apart from many other animated productions. The people at Rankin/Bass clearly knew a good thing when they saw it, and worked with Topcraft studio up until its bankruptcy, at which point a team of its animators bought the studio and began a new one, including many of the same Topcraft employees. That team was made up of Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata, and the new company was Studio Ghibli.

Childrens’ movies are often riddled with bizarre anachronisms, and this one is no exception. Perhaps the most random of these comes during an encounter with a group of bandits. The Unicorn and Schmendrick encounter Captain Cully and his marauders, who will briefly delay them during their travels. Our heroes are invited to join their roaring fire in the woods, and in this seemingly medieval universe, Cully’s invitation is a boisterous, “Have a taco!”

This meeting gains them a second traveling companion, Molly Grue, a woman worn down from years of hard living, and who ends the film paired off with Schmendrick—a nice inversion of the usual trope of the older male hero winning the heart of some naive young damsel. But these moments aren’t that unusual; let’s talk about the giant-breasted tree.

With a hearty “I don’t even care,” Schmendrick wraps his arms around a tree, utters an incantation, and transforms the tree into a disturbingly cleavage-heavy female, who immediately begins telling the young wizard all about her endless devotion to him, and the unyielding love one can expect from a tree. Sure, it’s meant to be a lesson in “be careful what you wish for”—how a single-minded pursuit of being loved, regardless of the source, could actually be a disaster—but the over-the-top sexualization of a Douglas fir comes across more unsettling than silly, as though Robert Crumb suddenly seized control of the film. Plus, when the Unicorn arrives, the tree calls her a hussy, and tries to kill Schmendrick through death by bosom. It’s a sexual nightmare of Freudian proportions.

All of this, however, is just prelude to the main arc of the narrative. Soon, Schmendrick turns the Unicorn into a human woman, in order to protect her from the Red Bull, who doesn’t appear to give a fig about people. Arriving in a castle populated almost exclusively by two men—King Haggard (Lee) and his son Prince Lir (Bridges)—the unicorn, now known as Lady Amalthea, begins to fall in love with the Prince, and forget her true nature. There are some delightfully absurd moments within the back half of the film, primarily a pirate cat with a peg leg and eye patch, and an alcoholic skeleton who reveals the path to freedom. These scenes still play like gangbusters today, and capture the smart soul at the heart of the work.

The parts that terrified me as a child—other than Mommy Fortuna’s deranged, untimely demise—were all about the Red Bull: The giant, supernatural beast that turns out to be under the control of King Haggard. It’s drawn in shades of deep blood red: half menacing cloud of ambiguous shape, half densely lined muscles and starkly rendered body. It’s an all-too-real (and out of control) animal combined with the abstract force of an ethereal presence, like The Nothing from The Never Ending Story. That fusion of material and magical, organic and fantasy, is what lends the creature such imaginative force. In Noël Carroll’s book The Philosophy Of Horror, he defines monsters as necessarily interstitial: They resist categorization, and that inability to place them within clear boundaries creates anxiety and dread. It we can’t explain it away, we can’t neutralize it in our heads. That’s the power of monsters; that’s the power of the Red Bull.

King Haggard, on the other hand, generates anxiety for a very different reason. An aptronym if ever there was one, I suspect Haggard stands alone among animated villains: He has forced all the unicorns into the sea not because he’s evil or bears them any ill will, but simply because he’s depressed. As he explains to Lady Amalthea, he finds joy by looking out into the sea, and the knowledge of their majestic presence under his control gives him momentary respite from the crushing ennui that governs his life.

And that kind of crushing depression is scary to a child or an adult. Children fear it because it’s a mindset that is (hopefully) inexplicable to them, a threat that could potentially take over and drive someone to ruin all that is good in the world. For adults, who have presumably had some experience with the emotion, it’s a possibility that is always there, one that we’ve seen in others, one latent in ourselves. We can pity Haggard even as we condemn him. In the end, as Haggard’s castle collapses and he falls to his death, he cries out, “The last! I knew you were the last!” The world can never be remade to suit a depressive; ultimately, they know that trying to control the world around them is unsustainable. The solution can only ever be inside yourself, and to reject that, as Haggard does, is to reject your humanity. It’s not going to end well.

The Last Unicorn will endure as a film for reasons both intellectual and aesthetic. It’s full of rich ideas and revisions of outdated, sexist stereotypes, and thereby feels more modern than many animated classics. Additionally, it’s often gorgeous: The lushly rendered landscapes are impeccably drawn. Plus, it’s so endearingly odd. The anachronisms, the bizarre dialogue, even that damn tree with the boobs are all singular touches that push the film into a realm all its own. It didn’t scare much, this time around. That’s probably for the best, as re-developing nightmares based on The Last Unicorn in my mid-30s would be embarrassing. But it was a welcome discovery to realize just how strange the meat is of this weird little movie, and how well placed its heart.

According to The New York Times review:

”The Last Unicorn” is an unusual children’s film in many respects, the chief one being that it is unusually good. This animated fable also features a cast that would do any live-action film proud, a visual style noticeably different from that of other children’s fare, and a story filled with genuine sweetness and mystery. Children, except perhaps for very small ones, ought to be intrigued by it; adults won’t be bored. And no one of any age will be immune to the sentiment of the film’s final moments, which really are unexpectedly touching and memorable.

”The Last Unicorn,” which opens today at the National and other theaters, casts Mia Farrow as the voice of the title character, who embarks on an epic journey to find out why her fellow unicorns have disappeared. As represented by Miss Farrow and a team of animators headed by Katsuhisa Yamada, this unicorn means to be the creature of myths and tapestries, not a cuddly kiddie version. Some of the story’s other creatures, like a vicious harpy or a talking skeleton, are also far cries from the standard, sugary characters that inhabit children’s movies.

But ”The Last Unicorn” isn’t harsh, even if its story contains scary situations and elements of tragedy. With a screenplay by Peter S. Beagle based on his novel, the movie takes the shape of a whimsical, picaresque adventure, preoccupied with the differences between myth and reality (Robin Hood is even seen walking blithely through the forest at one point, a figure of legend utterly impervious to the ”real” people around him). The unicorn, who soon picks up a companion called Schmendrick the Magician, journeys over a interesting and changeable landscape until she reaches King Haggard, who holds the secret of the other unicorns’ fate. That fate is finally resolved in one of the animators’ most startling and lovely images.

Schmendrick’s voice is supplied by Alan Arkin, who does a most enjoyable job with the role, and Haggard is played by Christopher Lee. Among the other luminaries in the movie’s large and excellent cast are Tammy Grimes, Robert Klein, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, Keenan Wynn and Rene Auberjonois, with Paul Frees doing a particularly amusing cat imitation and Miss Grimes most affecting in her first meeting with the unicorn. She plays an aging, disappointed wife who angrily exclaims ”It would be the last unicorn in the world that came to Molly Grue. It’s all right. I forgive you.”

The music has been written by Jimmy Webb and sung by America, and it makes a lush, stirring accompaniment to the action. Direction is by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, who do a fine job of drawing the audience gently but thoroughly into their film’s imaginative spirit.

5 thoughts on “On The Last Unicorn

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