Horseathon: The Last Unicorn

Considering that lately I’ve been in  a rebellious frame of mind, it’s fitting that my selection for the Horseathon stretches the rules of “horse” as well as “classic film.” Having grown up with horses, there is no other suitable excuse for what I am about to do, except perhaps that I’ve reviewed National Velvet (1944) at least twice and have nothing further to say (other than to reiterate again that if you haven’t seen it, you should). Also, I’ve been looking for a compelling reason to write about this particular film, so a giant THANK YOU for the Horseathon! Regardless, I hope you enjoy my little foray into 1980s animation.

The Unicorn gets vaguely helpful information from an addle-brained butterfly.

I remember loving The Last Unicorn (1982) growing up. We rented it countless times. In college, when I ran into a copy on DVD, I had no choice but to purchase it immediately, full of nostalgic glee. The story depicts the life of a unicorn, who hears that she must be the last of her own kind. She gets vague advice from a poetic, flighty (pun fully intended) butterfly, and leaves her home in search of the other unicorns. On her way, she encounters other perspectives and different forms of magic: humans who have no concept of it, a not-so accomplished magician (who oddly reminds me of Rincewind the Wizard of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), a harpy (the darker side of her own magic), and the evil Mommy Fortuna, who captures animals and makes them appear to be magical creatures in her travelling novelty show. All of the other unicorns have been forced into the sea by the infamous Red Bull (who doesn’t give you wings, or freedom … I didn’t think it was funny, either) near the castle of King Haggard. King Haggard wanted all of the unicorns for himself, and has kept them prisoner in the sea.

The Unicorn faces the Red Bull. Tell me this image isn’t like LEGEND (1985).

The film is based on the book (with the screenplay) by Peter S. Beagle and features an all-star cast you might not expect: Alan Arkin, Mia Farrow, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury, and Rene Auberjonois, just to name a few. The film was actually animated in Japan, where the anime style for film was taking flight (though it originated in the early 1900s–for more information on the history of anime, click here.)  This accounts for the trademark anime elements of the characters, including large eyes, somewhat exaggerated expressions, round mouths, and the unicorn’s not-so-horselike tail.

Now for the horse elements:

Mia Farrow plays “the unicorn” or “Amalthea,” as she is called when Schmedrick the Magician turns her into a human to save her from the Red Bull. As the unicorn travels the land, those unfamiliar with magic mistakenly see her as a beautiful, white mare. She quickly discovers how clueless most people are of unicorn legend.

Molly gives the wizard Schmedrick a verbal lashing for turning the Unicorn into a woman–Amalthea.

This is about par for much of unicorn lore. In most stories about or including unicorns, they are rare creatures at best: pure, powerful, gentle, and in many cases the very holders of the world’s magic. Frequently, the story is that there are as few as one or two remaining in the world (think Legend, which came out a few years later). Unicorns are sometimes considered the landbound relations of the Pegasus, although the Pegasus derives from Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks considered the unicorn to be an actual creature, perhaps from India. The unicorn is referenced throughout ancient history, including Mesopotamia and in the Bible. Its magic and legend is so prevalent that it is often considered synonymous with the fantasy genre (particularly in the debates of fantasy vs. sci-fi, but we’ll leave that for another discussion).

Not just a cartoon character

Our fascination with unicorns resembles our fascination with horses in general, but on a different level. While horses are common–though beloved–tools of civilization, making and breaking societies in both agriculture and war, unicorns are a rare mythology that many storytellers are afraid to approach (vs. the current popularity of vampire lore, however destroyed it may be). Perhaps it is the sacredness of the creature, or the lack of depth (how can the embodiment of purity be a complicated character?), or our current social pessimism (evidenced by the re-popularity of dystopia) that drives us away from it. Regardless, the comparative rarity of unicorns in film reflect the rarity of the creature itself.

… not just for girls, either.

The answer is simply this: “film magic” could not have been created without the horse (please, they’re in so many films, though disproportionately the stars). The truly magical unicorn, however, creates its own magic, making it sometimes unwieldy in the unprepared film. Nevertheless, it reflects our own awe of seeing that rare bit of cinematic perfection that makes us sit in wonder. The Last Unicorn can hardly be regarded as that film. Though entertaining, the story trolls along a bit, and the characters tend to be underdeveloped. That doesn’t even cover the fact that the singing in at least one or two songs is noticeably flat. Still, it’s a cult classic of the 1980s and provides a little of what we all need: one last bit of purity in a corrupt, selfish world. That is, after all, the significance of the unicorn.


This post is my entry for the Horseathon, hosted by Page of My Love of Old Hollywood. The horses will run across the blogsophere through tomorrow, so make sure to check out all of the entries. And come back tomorrow for another equine contribution from the crew here at True Classics!

9 thoughts on “Horseathon: The Last Unicorn

  1. Carrie,
    You needn’t have worried about Last Unicorn fitting in since there are many films from all eras. (I didn’t specify that it had to be a Classic)

    Not having the pleasure of seeing LU I had no idea it had an All Star cast. It really is visually appealing from what I can see from your gorgeous screen shots.

    I too enjoyed your fun Unicorn facts and overall it was an entertaining read made even more enjoyable with your history on watching the film.

    Thanks so much for participating in the Horseathon. Unicorns are horses too! Just fabulous and magical horses.. (They do have hooves after all!) : )

  2. Hmmm nice review, Not sure how I missed out on every seeing this. Going to have to try and find it for Adam Jr. to watch. Some of that animation looks a lot like those lord of the rings animated films.

  3. Carrie, THE LAST UNICORN has been one of our family’s favorites for years, and now our daughter has fallen in love with it, too! It’s hard to beat that great voice cast; I was especially moved by Tammy Grimes’ characters tearful speech about how she wished she had encountered the unicorn in her youth, and now it’s too late for her. Rankin-Bass did some darn good animated films back then. Excellent post!

  4. Easily one of Tammy Grimes’ three best performances – the other two being ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas and Can’t Stop the Music. The whole scene where Molly Grue immediately recognizes the unicorn for what it is, and gives that impassioned “Why didn’t you come to me when I was new?” speech is just beautiful.

    And on the other side of the spectrum there is Jeff Bridges, who puts more emotion into his Hyundai commercials.

    SanclementeJedi is right – It was produced by Rankin/Bass, the same folks who brought us The Hobbit and Return of the King (Long story, but somehow they only got the rights to those books, and Bakshi got the others – likely Saul F*cking Zaentz’ fault) which is why it has a similar look to those films (And, if you want to admit it, to many of the character designs on Thundercats.

  5. Great! Unicorns really fascinate peolpe, and children specifically. I was more into ponies, but it’s quite the same, isn’t it? And Mia Farrow dubbing an unicorn makes the viewing much more interesting.

  6. This is based on a true story, right?

    I have to be frank: unless my niece requests this one it’s a good chance I probably won’t catch it anytime soon. But I do like the idea of a wizard called “Schmedrick” even though it would be difficult (if I were a character in the movie) for me to pronounce it with putting an “n” in there.

    Very enjoyable review, Carrie. And not off the beaten path in the slightest.

  7. I had never heard of this movie until college. It’s one you don’t want to watch for the first time as an adult. I was VERY disturbed by the hero’s insisting, “I love who I love!” . . . even if she’s a friggin HORSE!

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