There are many stories I’d call beautiful from Lord of the Rings to Journey to Okami. The queen of all is The Last Unicorn. Whether you choose book or movie, Peter Beagle’s timeless classic will always stand winner. If you haven’t experienced this classic, just do it. Right now. You owe yourself. But get “The Enchanted Edition” as it is the full, uncensored version.
This 1982 film is a work of art and doesn’t skimp on the details especially with the look and mannerisms of the unicorn herself. Her design is more akin to the medieval tapestry origins of the creature than a mare. She has the body of a deer with cloven hooves and a lion’s tail. She holds no regrets and so would come off as rude and dismissive if not for the nature of her being an ethereal immortal being apart from man.
Our tale begins with our unicorn over hearing from a man passing through her forest that she is the last. The thought seems absurd to her, but it’s one she continues to mull over. She confirms with a passing butterfly that this is true and so she sets from her forest which loses its story book qualities to become dull as she sets foot outside. From there, she is captured by Mommy Fortuna. She runs a zoo of oddities. The magician Schmendrick helps her escape. She also meets the tragic Molly Grue who weeps a unicorn should come to her now as she is past her prime. Together they travel to learn the fate of the unicorns.
The Last Unicorn’s main themes are those of regret and immortality. The characters live in a world filled with all manner of fantasy creatures from harpys to dragons to the unicorn herself. Many of these are immortal unless killed and so they do not operate the same as you or I. Mommy Fortuna, for example, has captured a Harpy whom she knows will one day be her demise, but will have immortality to her name because the immortal harpy will never forgot the one who captured her. Molly Grue weeps at seeing a unicorn so far past her prime as she is no longer a pure maiden of which unicorns were said to come to in legends. Of the lost years of her life serving a poor band of failures.
This of course changes when at the start of the second act, the crew discovers that a red bull controlled by a king who has little joy has been chasing the unicorns into the ocean and keeping them there among the waves. In the book, the bull pulls on the magic of the unicorn in such a way that even Molly Grue who so loves the unicorn can see her for the weird amalgamation of creatures she is with a head to small and its heartbreaking as she looks away. In order to get the bull to stop its chase, Schmendrick, a man who is hardly a magician, becomes a conduit for magic to do as it will and transform the unicorn into a human. This act is met with the heart wrenchingly uncomfortable weight it needs as this immortal being now inhabiting a very mortal vessel screams “I can feel this body dying all around me.
That’s another thing found in the movie that benefits it coming from a book; the dialogue often has the quality of a song. Exchanges are poignant and beautiful. Peter S Beagle was involved with the whole movie making process and it shows. Even the unicorn moves in ways that compliment the flow of a sonnet.
The movie, and book, isn’t without charm and levity. They are for children to enjoy. I do feel, however, the themes don’t hit as hard for children. They are new and innocent as the unicorn. As an adult you have regrets behind you and the weight of mortality upon your shoulders. Suddenly Molly Grue hits home, the horror of the Lady Amalthea feels stronger, and sometimes you can find no joy as the King Haggard.
Talk about Star Power, the movie has big name voice talent behind it. Christopher Lee plays King Haggard and he had said that if a live action adaptation were to be made, he would gladly return. Angela Lansbury lends her voice to Mommy Fortuna. Jeff Bridges is Prince Lir, Mia Farrow is the unicorn, Alan Arkin is Schmendrick, and so forth. And everyone is bringing their A game to their performances.
I dare not give away the ending to those who haven’t experienced the tale. Open your heart and enter the world of the last unicorn. Don’t let missing this story be one of your regrets.