Film Review: The Last Unicorn

Post by Curtis, Information Services staff

Recently, on an evening where I needed the warm glow of TikTok to comfort me after a particularly long day, I came across a video that unexpectedly struck me pretty hard. A user on the app responded to a request for clips of childhood movies that ‘hit differently’ when viewed as an adult. The chosen clip that played out on screen was a moment from the 1982 animated film The Last Unicorn. In this clip, the character Molly Grue, a disheveled woman past her prime, had just gotten away from a less-than-ideal group of not-so-merry men, meets the protagonist of the story: the Unicorn. Molly has an emotional break down after waiting all her life, having given up hope for the moment when, according to legend, a Unicorn visits a young maiden to bring beauty, hope and joy into her life. Molly is overwhelmed with regret over never being visited. Angry that only now in her current state does she see a unicorn, she cries out ‘Where have you been? Where have you BEEN?!’ 

An animated still from the Last Unicorn of the unicorn looking at a red haired woman who looks away from the creature.
Still image from The Last Unicorn

As a child, the superb voice acting of Tammy Grimes was enough to illicit a tear-filled response, but I couldn’t fully grasp or feel empathy for a character who felt cheated out of a happier more fulfilled youth. I was caught off-guard over a scene I had not watched in years. Viewing it with a completely different perspective in an emotionally raw state, I let lose some gratifying, albeit melodramatic, tears. It was in that moment that I looked back to this movie and the book after so long, asking the same question Molly cried out: ‘Where have you been?’

On my way to work, I’ve been listening to the podcast Las Culturistas, a show where two comedic hosts, Bowen Yang (SNL) and Matt Rogers, interview an artist/celebrity guest, asking them what cultural experience was most formative for them – something that opened the door for them to truly consume culture. This is a big question for anyone, given the myriad of influential art out there, but I’ve thought about this a lot and there is no question in my mind what that piece of culture would be for me: The Last Unicorn (1982). 

painting of a woman holding a white unicorn with a landscape in the background

Originally a book by Peter S. Beagle written in 1968, The Last Unicorn has been universally praised by critics and fantasy authors. Patrick Rothfuss once stated that the book was the ‘best book I have ever read.’  I personally didn’t grow up with the book; I was introduced to the story through the animated film. One of the few VHS tapes I owned as a kid, I don’t even remember how it came into my possession – it was always just there. The first thing I remember that made me an instant fan was the artwork of the film. Unlike the seamless movement of characters onscreen in Disney films from the same timeframe, The Last Unicorn’s movement is slow and a bit choppy, animated by the same people who did the artwork for the animated Lord of the Rings trilogy (1978). However, this stillness reflects the images from the tapestry work that the film calls attention to. It’s like you’d stared long enough at the tapestry that your eyes play a trick on you and the characters come to life. Add to this a fantastic original score by America and a cast that includes Mia Farrow as the Unicorn, Christopher Lee as King Haggard, Jeff Bridges as Prince Lir, Alan Arkin as the Magician Schmendrick and Angela Lansbury as the witch Mommy Fortuna; you can’t help but be impressed. 

Still from The Last Unicorn. A unicorn drinks from a fountain alongside a bird and a deer. Credits say 'Screenplay by Peter S Beagle, based on his novel'
Still image from The Last Unicorn

The story is about a Unicorn finding out that she may be the last of her kind, so she leaves her forest venturing out into the world in the hopes of finding others. From the outset, this feeling of personal isolation, of being unique or different speaks to what I consider an interesting interpretation of the story – the Queer experience. So many parts of the movie speak to this. The film, for me, had a particular effect on my understanding of gender and identity. Growing up, my interests were always being questioned. As a young boy, the obsession I developed with Unicorns became problematic for my family members. I was artsy, sensitive and inclined to enjoy things normally attributed to girls’ interests. Having wondered whether there was anyone like me was a feeling that this movie encapsulated, and I know now that I’m one of many others.  

The Unicorn makes her way into the world, eventually acquiring companions to join her quest. Alongside her is the magician Schmendrick and bitter Molly Grue; lonely misfits deciding to come together. These characters are part of the minority of people who actually see the Unicorn for who she really is, identity being a major, if not THE major theme of the film. Everyone else is blind to the Unicorn’s true form, often mistaking her for a white mare. At one point the Unicorn is spotted by a farmer, her pride injured as she becomes outraged at the thought of being seen as a mare. And of course! This is a major frustration for anyone, being misread and viewed by those who can’t see anything beyond the norms to which they are accustomed is something many of us can relate to. And not only is this a universally Queer experience, this is also a message that rings true for children watching the film.  

Eventually, the questing heroes find out about a monster known as the Red Bull, a giant flaming beast responsible for the disappearance of the Unicorns. A face-off ensues between the last Unicorn and the monster. The situation becomes desperate and Molly Grue begs the magician Schmedrick to help the Unicorn before she meets the same fate as the others. Not knowing how to control his magic, he lets loose his powers to help change the Unicorn’s form in the hopes that it will ward off the Bull. The magic works and changes the Unicorn into a human woman. The Bull sees the new form and retreats. Molly is devastated to see what has happened and quickly runs to the Unicorn’s aid, where a now emotionally distraught Unicorn is trying to understand her new body, feeling for the first time, sorrow, loss, and mortality. This is a devastating scene. The Unicorn has no idea how to operate in this body and begs to be changed back.  

A pale woman with purple eyes stands directly in front of a unicorn mural, implying a kinship.
Still image from The Last Unicorn

The magician does not yet know how to do that and convinces her that it’s best for her safety to remain human as they continue on their mission. Masking one’s self is something we all do for one reason or another, or for safety. However, members of the Queer community, particularly those who are Trans, can certainly relate to this feeling all too well. As the Unicorn spends more time in this form, she begins to lose herself, not remembering what being a Unicorn was like. She even begins to fall for a Prince who makes all sorts of attempts to gain her affection. Losing oneself after hiding who they are for too long is another common tragedy played out in Queer stories, real and fictitious. However, remembering who she is, the Unicorn eventually changes back to her real form, but with a sense of sorrow she never understood before and a renewed sense of identity that was almost lost. I really admire movies like this for kids. Ones with hard messages that avoid conventional endings, like when a Prince and Princess come together and live happily ever after. This is a grown-up tale for children, and one I encourage people to see for the first time or revisit like I have. The Kitchener Public Library is lucky enough to have multiple versions, including the original bookthe 1982 film, and a graphic novel version that rivals the art of the film.  

A unicorn standing on its hind legs is silhouetted in the colours of the Pride and Trans flags.

Unicorns have been perennial figures of myth, possibly because of the many forms of symbolism they’ve been associated with. Pride, in particular, is one symbol that has been a constant that certainly resonates with the Queer community. In the 70s and 80s, as LGBTQ2A pride marches were first coming into being, the official rainbow flag was designed by Gilbert Baker and, alongside this, the symbol of a Unicorn has been associated with pride, the magical, and the uniquely beautiful. 

Because of this movie, I used to ask incessantly as a kid for a unicorn toy to play with. Many members of my family were afraid of what that might mean, or how I’d be viewed, maybe even bullied. They tried to convince me out of wanting one, tried to influence me in other directions of interest such as sports, cars, and even guns. It was later on as a budding teen that I eventually let this influence get the better of me, feeling a sense of shame and wanting to hide my interests, which were deemed inappropriate. But, as a child, I didn’t care. Part of that sense of pride came through in a moment I will never forget. My uncle caved on my request for a Unicorn toy. Not being able to find one, according to my specifications (I had very specific expectations as a child), my uncle made one for me, taking a white horse figurine and giving it a horn by fixing the end of a small screw into the head and dulling down the point. It was my absolute favourite item in the world for a while, and helped me keep a sense of pride for the things I liked.

If you want to read more about The Last Unicorn, check out these articles:

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