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'The Last Unicorn': A Surprisingly Meaningful Children's Film

I have an intense passion for movies, and I believe that film critics help people think better about the media they consume.

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The Last Unicorn was a favorite movie of mine growing up. Unlike most of my childhood favorites, it was not a Disney movie. It was animated by Rankin & Bass, the duo you may know from their series of stop motion animation Christmas specials, and their animated adaptation of The Hobbit.

While it was not made by Disney, they must have snagged the distribution rights at some point, because I recorded this off of the Disney channel originally. It's one of the films from my childhood that I still enjoy re-watching, that still very much speaks to me as an adult.

Plot Summary

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If you've read the book, the movie is a very faithful adaptation, because the author of the book wrote the screenplay, and left in many of the lines from the book word for word.

The story begins with the unicorn alone in a forest. She overhears hunters talking. One of them recognizes that there is a unicorn in that forest, because it's always spring. They decide to hunt somewhere else because unicorn magic might make hunting difficult for them there. What troubles the unicorn is when he says she is the last.

The unicorn decides to consult a passing butterfly about this "you are the last" business. This at first seems like a mistake - the butterfly doesn't speak coherently, he just recites bits of poems and songs he's heard before. But then the butterfly gets very serious and tells the unicorn that all the other unicorns were driven away somewhere by a creature called the Red Bull. So begins the unicorn's brave quest to find this Red Bull and rescue the other unicorns.

Along the way, she gets captured by a carnival that specializes in using magic to fool people into thinking real animals are magical legendary creatures. She meets a magician, Schmendrick, who helps her flee the carnival. He tells her they need to journey to the land of a solemn king named King Haggard, because he is the master of the Red Bull.

Schmendrick is captured by outlaws, but escapes by conjuring an illusion of Robin Hood. The unicorn is recognized by Molly, the wife of the captain of the outlaw band. Molly wants to travel with Schmendrick and the unicorn, no matter where they're going.

They get close to the castle of King Haggard, but the Red Bull starts chasing the unicorn. Schmendrick, in order to save her, turns her into a human girl, but she is horrified at having a mortal body. They infiltrate Haggard's castle by way of Schmendrick and Molly working for him as a magician and cook respectively, and the unicorn disguised as a woman named Lady Amalthea stays as a guest, claiming to be Schmendrick's niece.

Spoilers Below

They eventually do free the other unicorns, but not before 'Amalthea' starts to forget being a unicorn. She is courted by Prince Lir, Haggard's son. She eventually does turn back into a unicorn, and defeats the Red Bull. But she regrets not being able to be human to stay with Lir.

Themes

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Truth/Illusion

The difference between ideas and reality is a running theme in The Last Unicorn. In the book, more detail is given about this in regards to Cully the outlaw leader. Cully wants to see himself as a heroic Robin Hood type figure. But his own reality is sadder, bleaker, you could even say pathetic. He could never be a Robin Hood, and on some level he knows this. But he acts the part, hoping to similarly inspire legend.

You also see this dichotomy explored with Mommy Fortuna's carnival. Real animals are enchanted with illusions, to make them look like fantasy creatures. For example, an old lion is made to look like a manticore. It's implied that audience expectations determine what one sees. People see the fantasy creatures because that's what they want to see. Most people see the unicorn as a white mare, because they see things as mundane. Therefore, Mommy Fortuna gives her an added illusory horn, so they can see her as a unicorn.

Time

Time, age, and mortality play a central role in the narrative. Towards the end, the heroes have to pass through time, which means walking through a clock that appears solid in King Haggard's castle. What a skeleton tells them about this is that "a clock isn't time, it's just numbers and springs, pay it no mind". Similarly, contrast in the story is often pointed out between mortal beings and immortal ones, for which time is nothing. For example, when running away from a Harpy that was also imprisoned by Mommy Fortuna, the unicorn tells Schmendrick not to run from it; running from something immortal attracts its attention. She may as well be saying, that thing has infinite time to chase you. There are many references to how stories endure over time as well. One reason Cully is so fixated on being a legendary outlaw is because he's worried about having a legacy of infamy. He wants a legend about himself to live on after he dies. The skeleton talking is also a symbol of death, and Schmendrick gets to do a twofer miracle by not only raising the dead (sort of) but also (sort of) turning water into wine, which is required to get the skeleton to tell them how to get to the Red Bull. Schmendrick's gaining mastery of magic can be seen as him learning how to overcome death, culminating in doing something that in the book, even his master could not do - changing a unicorn into a human and back. This represents restoring immortality after taking it from someone. Perhaps that means Schmendrick will go on to make the elixir of life? Who knows.

The interesting thing that is talked about more in the book is that Schmendrick is supposed to be much older than he looks, and that he won't age until he finally masters his magic. So that makes almost all of our main characters older than in a lot of children's movies, and thus more concerned with aging and dying, especially Molly. Molly laments not having had a chance to meet a unicorn as a young maiden.

Mommy Fortuna was also obsessed with a legacy and immortality, that's why she wanted to capture and hold prisoner immortal creatures - they would remember her forever.

It's a very rare person who is taken for what he truly is.

— Schmendrick

Review

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The Last Unicorn is a childhood classic that also works well for adults, and it's worth re-watching. There are many great voice actors who give wonderful performances. The music by America is also very good. Unlike in many children's films, the side characters aren't annoying, and they actually serve to enrich the story in some way.

Some parts are kind of weird, and there are some scenes that could be called nightmare fuel to some. But it's not enough in this viewer's mind to detract from the overall beauty of this one-of-a-kind, memorable film. If you love fantasy and fairy tales, you should definitely check out The Last Unicorn, an underrated classic.

© 2018 Rachael Lefler

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 06, 2019:

I have not read the book or seen the movie. It sounds like an interesting fairy tale. Thanks for your review.