Though the animated film The Last Unicorn will turn 40 years old in 2022, it’s still largely considered a cult classic. The sort of movie that a certain kind of nerdy Gen-Xer or elder millennial will enthusiastically yell about with strangers whenever it happens to come up in casual conversation, but that most average moviegoers almost completely missed out on. Part of the reason for that is that 1980s animated films were generally more interested in making money than being art, and the Disney renaissance spearheaded by critical and commercial hit The Little Mermaid was still several years off.
But it’s also because The Last Unicorn is simply unlike anything else that existed at the time. From the stacked voice cast that included everyone from Mia Farrow and Alan Arkin to Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee, to the earnestly twee soundtrack by the band America and its general refusal to fit into neat narrative boxes, it is a film that consistently makes surprising and unexpected choices of the deeply risky sort we still don’t often see today.
Based on the novel of the same name by fantasy author Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn follows the story of a unicorn who sets off on a quest to find her missing kin, who have reportedly all disappeared. Along the way she is kidnapped by a magical carnival and learns of the existence of the Red Bull, a flaming supernatural creature controlled by a maniacal king that has been driving all the unicorns to the ends of the Earth. She meets a magician named Schmendrick and a cook named Molly Grue, who both vow to help her find the other unicorns and join her on her journey to King Haggard’s castle.
But although (spoiler alert!) her trip is ultimately successful, and our unicorn eventually finds and rescues her missing sisters—The Last Unicorn doesn’t exactly have what you might call a happy ending. Instead, its conclusion can only be described as bittersweet, a surprisingly realistic and decidedly un-fairytale-like rumination on regret, loneliness and loss. And honestly? It’s perfect in all its oddness, a children’s film that treats its audience as though they are adults, rejecting easily digestible platitudes in favor of honesty—and an admission that sometimes there are no easy answers.
The animation remains uniquely beautiful—and still holds up nearly four decades later—thanks to the deliberate, delicate work by Rankin/Bass (can you believe these are the same guys who made The Year without a Santa Claus’ Heat Miser??) and the Japanese studio Topcraft (the forerunner of Studio Ghibli). From its gorgeous opening credits sequence, which artfully incorporates actual images from the famous 15th century Unicorn Tapestries to the lush landscapes of the unicorn’s forest and the sharp peaks of Haggard’s keep, The Last Unicorn is full of striking imagery that stays with you well past the closing credits. (I will take my irrational fascination with Mommy Fortuna’s weird tree headdress—truly, what is its purpose?!—with me to my grave is all I’m saying.)
The film is both deeply strange and genuinely scary, full of characters who encompass every shade of grey. Monsters are real and so is magic, but most people have lost the ability to see things like unicorns in the world around them and the Red Bull is a prisoner as much as the creatures he chases. Schmendrick is a terrible wizard and Molly Grue is a cynical, depressed dreamer, still aching for a different kind of life. There’s a horny anthropomorphic tree, a cavalcade of Robin Hood-esque ghosts, a talking cat and a skeleton that will literally do anything for wine. (Relatable!) Nothing about The Last Unicorn is predictable or expected, and it gently mocks fantasy tropes as easily as it deploys them.
Even the unicorn herself is a difficult heroine: Immortal, strangely alien and with little understanding of things like death or the concept of time. It is only by pure accident—a pair of strange men hunting in her magically protected forest—that she learns unicorns have essentially vanished from the world. A jazzy traveling butterfly, in one of the film’s most bizarre moments, fills in the rest, informing via song her that the unicorns were hunted by the ferocious Red Bull and driven into the sea. It is not clear whether our unicorn has ever even met another of her kind, yet she sets out to find them anyway, determined not to exist in isolation for reasons the film smartly never makes entirely clear.
Unlike many other children’s movies, The Last Unicorn also has a much more complicated idea of what it means to be a villain than most of its contemporary brethren. Mommy Fortuna keeps beautiful, magical creatures in captivity simply because she can, yet seems to feel a strange kinship with them at the same time. The harpy Celaeno is monstrous yet beautiful, a being that kills not because she is evil but because it is simply her nature. Even King Haggard, the unicorn-obsessed monarch who controls the Red Bull, isn’t a typically predictable caricature of evil. He’s simply a sad, lonely man who is deeply unhappy, and tries to fill the void inside himself with a string of magical court jesters, a son he doesn’t love and a sea full of unicorns shining for him.
In fact, one of the best things about The Last Unicorn is the way it refuses to simplify the complex motivations and emotions that sit at the center of the story. At one point, the unicorn is changed into a human to save her life, but Schmendrick’s magic is treated as a physical violation from which she never fully recovers. As a human princess named Amalthea she falls in love with a poet prince named Lir, who cares for her enough to set her free—and ultimately serves as the galvanizing force for her to complete her quest to find her sisters, though it is the very thing that will ultimately end their relationship.
The whole movie is full of these sorts of complex, thoughtful contradictions—a story that is both hopeful and sad, bittersweet and romantic, beautiful and bleak. Which is perhaps the most important lesson of The Last Unicorn: It is a fairytale that reflects the often difficult truths of real life. To know joy, one must also experience pain. Things outside yourself will never make you happy, no matter how hard you chase them. Love in itself is a gift, even if it doesn’t last forever. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Or, as the movie puts it: There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.
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