When I was a kid, the popularity of a children’s movie among my friends had very little to do with current attractions, and everything to do with what was available at the local Blockbuster. When one kid discovered a video there, all the other kids had to rush to go see it as soon as the previous one had returned the video. That’s how I watched The Last Unicorn for the first time at the age of 8 or so, even though it had come out years earlier in 1982. It was different from any “kids’ movie” I had ever seen before; more somber and arty. It made a distinct impression on me, and (in case you couldn’t tell from my WordPress profile picture) I’ve been obsessed with unicorns ever since.
The Last Unicorn tells the tale of a unicorn who is seemingly the last of her kind, and leaves her forest to find where all the other unicorns went. How does it hold up to an adult viewing? Having seen it twice as an adult, and having read the book upon which it was based, I can tell you that even though it’s not as phenomenal as I remember it being, it’s well worth seeing and I will always keep it close to my heart. It’s also become a bit of a cult classic, so it’s not just me who likes it. More below, including spoilers!
This article will focus on the movie rather than Peter Beagle’s original 1968 book, though the two are remarkably similar to each other (that’s what happens when you let the author of a book write the book’s screenplay), and it can somewhat apply to both. The story starts with the unicorn finding out that she is the last of her kind. There are rumors that a creature called the Red Bull drove all the other unicorns away. This shocks her, and she feels that she has to find the other unicorns, so she takes the risk of leaving the safety of her forest. According to this lore, unicorns are immortal, but they can be killed outside of their forest. Leaving is thus a big deal for the unicorn.
After some adventures in a monster menagerie and with a band of outlaws, the unicorn teams up with a failed magician named Schmendrick and one of the outlaws, Molly Grue. Molly guides them to a country ruled by King Haggard, the domain of the Red Bull. The Bull attacks them and terrifies the unicorn, who cannot stand against it. Schmendrick manages some magic, turning the unicorn into a human woman. Both Molly and the unicorn are understandably upset, but the Bull is no longer interested since there’s no longer a unicorn there, and it leaves them alone. The three continue on to King Haggard’s castle, where Schmendrick becomes the court magician, Molly takes on serving duties, and the unicorn, now called Lady Amalthea, is just… sort of… there.
Haggard’s adopted son Prince Lir falls in love with Amalthea, for no apparent reason other than she’s pretty, and for the first time in his life tries performing heroic feats like slaying dragons in order to impress her. But she doesn’t seem to react to, well, anything. She is also gradually losing her memories and identity as a unicorn. Slowly but surely (within the span of a kinda terrible sappy duet), she falls in love with Lir. Meanwhile Haggard hints that the unicorns are kept captive in the ocean, where watching them is the only thing that brings him joy, and Molly learns where to find the Red Bull’s lair from a talking cat.
Schmendrick, Molly, Amalthea, and Lir all enter the lair to confront the Bull, but Amalthea has doubts, forgetting her purpose and wishing to stay human and with Lir for the rest of her life. He’s a “hero” now, though, so he dissuades her. When the Red Bull attacks, Schmendrick is finally able to turn her back into a unicorn.
The fight between the unicorn and the Red Bull isn’t going well, so Lir jumps in to defend the unicorn and falls before the Bull. This enrages the unicorn and gives her strength, and she is able to drive the Bull into the sea just as he had done to the unicorns. The unicorns now are able to escape from the sea, and as they run, they bring down Haggard’s castle and he falls to his death. The unicorn heals Lir with her horn and runs off back to her forest. She has one last conversation with Schmendrick in which she admits to being the only unicorn who has ever felt regret—and love.
On a basic level, The Last Unicorn is a solid movie, with a good plot, great characters, and an even better voice cast (including talents like Mia Farrow, Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, and the late great Christopher Lee) that brought real life to the characters. Though a modern audience may find the animation a bit choppy, it’s still charming—after all, it was done by the studio that would go on to become Studio Ghibli. I even like the music, but only the songs performed by the band America, not the ones sung by the actors.
When I was a kid, I was enchanted by both the unicorn and Amalthea’s design. Here’s where we run into our first problem. As a human, Amalthea has very pale skin, white-blonde hair, and blue eyes. This literally became my standard of beauty for years afterwards—an unattainable standard for me, since I’m Greek with Mediterranean coloring—and I still wish I had blue eyes. The Last Unicorn by no means pioneered this look, but we see it as an ideal even in modern stories, like Elsa in Frozen. Even Barbie could arguably be considered part of this standard. It’s problematic that we still idealize bodies that are so Aryan and stick-thin, and Amalthea’s body is so idealized in the narrative that Lir falls in love with her because of it, even though he doesn’t know her at all.
But my biggest issue is the sudden shift in agency when the unicorn becomes Lady Amalthea. All of a sudden, she stops doing, well, anything. At first she appears to be mourning the loss of her immortal unicorn body, but later, as she forgets more and more about her past, she seems to simply become empty. All that’s left to fill that emptiness is Lir. And that just makes me furious. Meanwhile Lir gets to be a hero, apparently with all the agency that Amalthea lost.
The innocent unicorn turning into a mortal human, for whom time passes and change happens, could arguably be seen as a metaphor for growing up. But since Amalthea loses her agency, does that mean all girls lose agency when they grow into women? The unicorn eventually gets her true form and her power back, and is able to defeat the Red Bull—but only because of her love for a man. Love is important and all, but the message seems to be that women only regain their agency when it’s for the benefit of a man.
My uncle, who recently watched the movie with me, had a different perspective. He had viewed the unicorn as completely selfish, up until she started showing interest in Lir. She had left her forest to find the other unicorns, but didn’t know she had to save them, and, in fact, almost gave up on saving them until Lir talked her out of it. Early on, she said unicorns didn’t feel regret, and she never seemed to show empathy or even regard for others’ feelings (except, perhaps, for animals). Lir, in the meantime, unselfishly loved her and gave up his life for her, even though he had no reason to. By becoming the first unicorn who loved, Amalthea also became the first unicorn to not be entirely selfish and vain. But if Beagle had really wanted to show this message, it would have been clearer if the unicorn had retained her unicorn identity and agency as Lady Amalthea, and if she and Lir had actually gotten to know each other the way you’re supposed to before deciding you’re in love with somebody. Seeing her gradually lose her pride as a unicorn and realize that a human is, in fact, good enough for her would have been even more powerful than her accepting Lir’s love because she had lost most of herself and forgotten that she was supposed to be a unicorn for whom humans are inferior. She never shows such an attitude of disdain toward humans in the movie, even though it would fit with her prior indignation at being mistaken for a horse by humans.
I still love this movie. I still love unicorns (perhaps too much; perhaps that’s why I was so upset when the unicorn became human). I still love that there’s a powerful female protagonist who saves the day with the power of love. And there’s no doubt it helped to inspire my own writing and literary tastes. Despite its problems, I will recommend this movie and the book it’s based on to the moon and back. If you want to see it, it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime and Netflix and has a new Blu-Ray edition. And the author/screenwriter Peter Beagle is currently touring with it, so maybe, like I did a couple years ago, you’ll get a chance to see it on the big screen and meet him in person! Doing so will help to support him during this time when he’s having some financial trouble, as will ordering signed merchandise directly from his handler’s site here (you can also sign up for a newsletter at that site to find out all the latest updates).