I’ve talked before about the magic of movies that can actually survive from childhood into adulthood. It’s a rare film that can appeal to you when you’re 8 and still appeal to you when you’re 32 and not just because of nostalgia.
The Last Unicorn is another one of those movies for me.
If you went looking for Peter Beagle’s classic fantasy novel at a bookstore or library, you would find it tucked away with the rest of the adult books, not in the children’s collection. It’s curious that it was turned into an animated feature, though how else would you have brought to life a magical world of unicorns and giant red bulls back in the early 80s?
As a child, I watched this movie the same way the unicorn experiences her adventure. She is confused by the thought that anything bad could happen to her or her kind. She sets off to find the other unicorns, not really concerned for her life since she is immortal but she is very naive. I think as a child and a pre-teen living in the cozy suburbs, this was how I felt too. I believed in all the magic in the world and that everything was possible. Why would fairy tales exist, with their happy endings, but to give us hope for the future?
But when you watch the movie as an adult (or read the novel), you can feel the odd melancholy hidden between the lines of each page and you understand why this story endures. One of Schmendrick’s last lines is the beautiful quote: There are no happy endings because nothing ends.
You shake your head at the unicorn’s innocence, remembering how that felt and knowing there is no way it can last. It hurts when Schmendrick transforms her into human form, taking away that innocence immediately because being human is painful in a way an immortal creature could never understand. Another scene that always breaks me heart is when Molly Grue confronts the Unicorn and cries out at her for not appearing until now.
When I was a kid, I understood that Molly was upset, but it wasn’t until I was older that this moment really made me ache. How you believe so hard for so long, how you prepare yourself for some kind of magic in the world and it feels like it will never arrive, and when it does, it’s usually long after you have given up. Or you think you have. The magic of the Unicorn does not come from her casting any sort of spells, but from the joy she brings to those she meets. Schmendrick wants to badly to impress her, to be a true magician for her. Molly is just so happy to be near her, something that she associates with being young and worthy and pure. It restores her in a way, gives her hope for other parts of her life.
Then, of course, there is Prince Lir. He’s a tragic figure in the book, but hearing a young Jeff Bridges voice him…it’s perfect. Bridges voice is strong enough that you know Lir is a young man who can handle himself. But when he speaks to Lady Amalthea, you can hear his voice waver, the uncertainty because he thinks he is talking to a mysterious woman. But by the end of the story, he is stronger than before, especially once he understands what is going on. But like Schmendrick and Molly, Lir draws confidence when he is close to the Unicorn, her existence inspiring him to become more than just a Prince but a Hero.
If you’ve never seen or read The Last Unicorn, I’m urging you now to add it to your list. If you watched/read it as a child, pick it up again, you will be surprised. Even the soundtrack (by 70s folk rock band America) still sounds good. It is a beautiful story that deserves more attention and discussion. And though it makes my heart ache, by the end of the movie, my faith in magic and how we can find it if we believe in it, is restored. The Last Unicorn is a modern classic and worth adding to your shelf.