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Most contemporary kids’ movies feel as if they’re created with adults in mind, but Rankin & Bass’ The Last Unicorn offers the opposite: a somewhat unnerving fantasy film that feels as though it was created explicitly for adults – at least by today’s metrics. The idea that the animation would appeal to kids almost seems like an afterthought. What child in 1982 (to hell with now) would drag their parents to see an animated film with an original soundtrack by America, and a voice cast that includes the stars of Murder, She Wrote and Rosemary’s Baby? And yet, what kid wouldn’t be desperate to watch a beautiful cartoon film about a unicorn?
The Last Unicorn stars Mia Farrow as the titular hero, a proud and majestic (yet delicate) creature who is – as the title suggests – the last of her kind. Unlike reductive contemporary depictions of women, a character description of Farrow’s unicorn would read “beautiful and she totally knows it, but she’s not like, obnoxious about it, or anything.” A chance encounter with a strange, jazzy little butterfly not only offers the first indication of just how high everyone was when they made this movie (as if America wasn’t your first clue), but it also establishes the mythology invented in Peter S. Beagle’s original book.
Instead of retreading classic fairy tales and revisiting the same old princess stories, Beagle invents his own mythology, but still finds clever ways to reference familiar narratives. The “true inspiration” for Robin Hood, for instance, is depicted as far more disappointing than you might imagine. His lover, Molly Grue joins the unicorn and the novice wizard Schmendrick (Alan Arkin) on their journey to the castle of King Haggard, which is said to house the demonic Red Bull – a terribly terrifying creature who forced all the unicorns to the ends of the Earth.
An intense encounter with the Red Bull forces Schmendrick to transform the unicorn into a young human woman, an act that’s presented with all the emotionally devastating weight of assault. Against her will, the unicorn’s form has been violated and changed into something she doesn’t understand. “I can feel this body dying,” she cries as only Molly seems to empathize with the pain she’s endured.
From there, The Last Unicorn could be a much darker telling of The Little Mermaid as the unicorn falls for a human prince (though it pre-dates Disney’s film by about seven years); in fact, its tone is much more in keeping with the original mermaid fairy tale than the animated musical from 1989. Fans of high fantasy (wizards, dragons, long journeys on foot to elusive destinations and destinies) could easily love a film like this one, with its late ’70s laid-back bearded white man rock music and Christopher Lee voicing the nefarious King Haggard, whose castle is just as jagged as his name implies.
But there’s something more to The Last Unicorn: the tragically beautiful tale of an endangered species torn from her kind; an immortal creature too proud to exist in isolation and too lovely to die; an evil king whose desire to possess all the unicorns borders on lecherous; a kind-hearted prince who selflessly pushes the unicorn to continue her mission despite his own affections. These are not your typical characters in your typical story, but Rankin & Bass could never be accused of doing anything too usual.
While there’s plenty in The Last Unicorn that appeals to fantasy nerds and stoner kids and little girls with dreams of lonely, enchanted unicorns, what makes this movie more special than anything Pixar or Disney ever imagined is fearlessness. Like Farrow’s unicorn, the film itself isn’t afraid to explore more complex emotions and experiences, and it’s never shy about where it needs to go. When the unicorn is first transformed into a human woman, she’s depicted fully nude to poignantly convey a distinct sense of helplessness. I hesitate to draw a controversial parallel, but the unicorn’s story is so specifically, almost radically female: She’s forced to the ends of the Earth by a demonic entity in the form of a bull, a hyper-masculine animal that symbolizes power and virility, while a unicorn traditionally has feminine connotations. The unicorn is physically violated and disconnected from any sense of her former self when she's transformed into a human – against her will – and the trauma of that experience makes her forget who she was and what made her so special. She heads out on a desperate journey to find other unicorns – other survivors, others that can understand what this is like. It’s difficult not to interpret The Last Unicorn as a film about a woman’s emotional experience, whether that’s surviving trauma or existing in a misogynistic society that fosters a culture of objectification.
And she is objectified and degraded, repeatedly: despised and violently coveted for her beauty, perceived as fragile and valuable only for her appearance, marginalized and pushed out of the way of men, viewed as a thing to be owned. Most people willfully fail to recognize what makes her special – like the wizard says, they only see what they want to see. A terrifying encounter with a Harpy in a witch’s encampment shows her a disquieting alternative. The aging, gnarly creature is no less rare and majestic, but reviled for its appearance and its inherently vicious nature – exacerbated by years in captivity. It’s a startling reminder that no two survivors cope the same, and that even the most coveted, enchanting things have an expiration date in the eyes of man.
There are no kids movies like The Last Unicorn anymore. Like Peter S. Beagle’s graceful hero and her ostracized kin, films like this one were pushed out in favor of lighter, more easily digestible fare; the animation remained, but the meaning – like the unicorns – became lost in time.