There’s no way to get around it: For children, The Last Unicorn is fucking terrifying.
The Rankin/Bass animated feature, released in 1982, features a tremendous voice cast (Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury, and Christopher Lee, to name a few)—but it’s not the voices that stick in the mind. Nor is it the story, though it certainly possesses many classical elements that contribute to its staying power. It isn’t the music, the animation, or the message. No, the reason for The Last Unicorn’s longevity is much simpler than any of that: It was scary as hell.
I’ve spoken with numerous people about this movie over the years, and to a one, they all respond with some variant of the following: “Oh, I remember watching that! That movie scared the crap out of me as a child.” This isn’t to say that everyone was scared to death of it, but it is to say that, to many of us who saw it at an impressionable age, death occasionally seemed the preferable option. I remember the film periodically appearing on television as a child; my most vivid memory of The Last Unicorn is of turning on the TV, seeing it materialize on the screen, and then running out of the room as fast as my little legs would carry me.
And throughout adulthood, that impression of fear remained my primary memory of the film. There are no cultural reference points for the film: No singular line of dialogue or image has become a pop-cultural touchstone. Unlike other entertainment from my childhood that I’ve since revisited, like The Muppets, I haven’t had periodic interactions with the characters or story throughout the years. Sure, I maintained some scattered impressions of the plot: something about a journey through a mysterious land, trying to find other unicorns, and I distinctly recalled a butterfly being in the mix somehow. But by and large, my recollection of The Last Unicorn was simply one of being afraid. Something about it freaked me out so thoroughly, I had blocked specifics from my mind. As a result, I had stayed away—until now. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t be all that scary any more. Still, when I queued up the film now, some 20 years later, I was apprehensive.
The Last Unicorn was not scary to me as an adult. That much was clear. But what I wasn’t prepared for—what I couldn’t have been prepared for—is just how weird the film is. Deeply, wonderfully weird. In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review, she describes it as “an unusual children’s film in many respects, the chief one being that it is unusually good.” She goes on to describe it as a “whimsical, picaresque adventure,” which is a little bit like describing the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey as a journey into unknown space. It’s not wrong, exactly, but it undersells the singular nature of the whole enterprise.
In some ways, it’s an archetypal tale for kids: a story about the value of experience and the importance of putting yourself out there to struggle through love, loss, and even regret. Our hero learns that the other unicorns have all been driven away by a legendary Red Bull, and to find them, she has to travel across the land, leaving the safe haven of her enchanted forest. Soon, accompanied by a young magician, Schmendrick, the unicorn encounters the Red Bull, and is turned into a human woman to protect her from the animal. In human form, through, she starts to forget her true nature. (Stupid, forgetful humans.) So she changes back, defeats the Red Bull, and frees all the other unicorns—who, it turns out, had been trapped in the ocean. The unicorn returns to her homeland, having experienced both love and regret, and being glad that she did. Roll credits.
But the weirdness is in the details, and the plot unfolds with the randomness and inexplicability of a game of Calvinball. Our hero first learns of her quest via a chance encounter with a butterfly—a very, very stoned butterfly. Played by Robert Klein, The Butterfly exists purely as a plot device to send our unicorn on her quest, but the movie’s script gives him so many random snippets of songs and digressions, the audience could be forgiven for feeling as puzzled as the Unicorn.
(Is anyone else creeped out by The Butterfly? During that scene, my wife assured me that The Butterfly was one of the things that scared her as a child. I have no memory of being anything but baffled by The Butterfly.)
Once underway, the film seems as though it’s going to settle into a standard hero’s quest—for approximately five minutes. While sleeping, the Unicorn is captured by Mommy Fortuna, a witch who runs the Midnight Carnival. The carnival is a traveling show where she keeps caged, miserable animals, whom she has enchanted to appear fantastical. All enchanted, that is, except for a harpy; the giant evil bird is all too real, and barely kept under lock and key by Mommy Fortuna’s magic.
And this is where the film gets really dark, as the previously whimsical vibe suddenly erupts into violence. After the young magician Schmendrick, moved by the Unicorn’s plight, frees her, they free all the other animals, including the harpy. Angry and malevolent, the harpy immediately launches an air assault upon the Unicorn, who fends it off with her horn. Cue Mommy Fortuna, who has been bragging about how she keeps the harpy imprisoned, and laughing about how someday the creature would kill her for doing so. She walks toward the creature, laughing, shouting about how it “never could’ve freed” itself. To adult eyes, it looks like she’s walking to her doom; and sure enough, the harpy flies straight for her, taking her down, and presumably ripping her apart. Eating her? I’m not sure. Perhaps the book specifies. I’m not certain I want to know.
The message seems geared straight at 20th century vanities about show business. Mommy Fortuna has only one desire: to succeed in showbiz, and the hell with morality, truth, or even life itself. She embraces her death, confident that she has achieved a kind of everlasting life. Her name will be remembered, even if only by her murderer. Peter S. Beagle, author of the source novel, has stated he intended the character to be a comment on the emptiness of this mentality: “She wants to be famous and knows why she isn’t… everyone has dreams, even sloppy old witches.” There’s something singularly creepy about a character who embraces getting ripped to shreds, so far gone in her own delusions of grandeur that being eviscerated by a giant bird feels like a win to her.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been half as potent had it not been animated so unsettlingly. The madness in Mommy Fortuna’s eyes, the creases of age and anger that saturate the harpy’s face—these are jagged, unnerving touches, and all credit goes to Topcraft animation studio for shaping these horrific images. Rankin/Bass worked with the studio on more than a dozen projects, including the iconic animated version of The Hobbit. Dark and unnerving for what is ostensibly an animated children’s tale, Mommy Fortuna wouldn’t look out of place in Topcraft’s Middle-Earth.
Seen through contemporary eyes, the animation of The Last Unicorn is one of the best things about it. (Except, oddly, for the unicorn herself, who comes across weightless and overly simplified.) It possesses a lyric grace and flights of surreal fancy that set it apart from many other animated productions. The people at Rankin/Bass clearly knew a good thing when they saw it, and worked with Topcraft studio up until its bankruptcy, at which point a team of its animators bought the studio and began a new one, including many of the same Topcraft employees. That team was made up of Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Isao Takahata, and the new company was Studio Ghibli.
Childrens’ movies are often riddled with bizarre anachronisms, and this one is no exception. Perhaps the most random of these comes during an encounter with a group of bandits. The Unicorn and Schmendrick encounter Captain Cully and his marauders, who will briefly delay them during their travels. Our heroes are invited to join their roaring fire in the woods, and in this seemingly medieval universe, Cully’s invitation is a boisterous, “Have a taco!”
This meeting gains them a second traveling companion, Molly Grue, a woman worn down from years of hard living, and who ends the film paired off with Schmendrick—a nice inversion of the usual trope of the older male hero winning the heart of some naive young damsel. But these moments aren’t that unusual; let’s talk about the giant-breasted tree.
With a hearty “I don’t even care,” Schmendrick wraps his arms around a tree, utters an incantation, and transforms the tree into a disturbingly cleavage-heavy female, who immediately begins telling the young wizard all about her endless devotion to him, and the unyielding love one can expect from a tree. Sure, it’s meant to be a lesson in “be careful what you wish for”—how a single-minded pursuit of being loved, regardless of the source, could actually be a disaster—but the over-the-top sexualization of a Douglas fir comes across more unsettling than silly, as though Robert Crumb suddenly seized control of the film. Plus, when the Unicorn arrives, the tree calls her a hussy, and tries to kill Schmendrick through death by bosom. It’s a sexual nightmare of Freudian proportions.
All of this, however, is just prelude to the main arc of the narrative. Soon, Schmendrick turns the Unicorn into a human woman, in order to protect her from the Red Bull, who doesn’t appear to give a fig about people. Arriving in a castle populated almost exclusively by two men—King Haggard (Lee) and his son Prince Lir (Bridges)—the unicorn, now known as Lady Amalthea, begins to fall in love with the Prince, and forget her true nature. There are some delightfully absurd moments within the back half of the film, primarily a pirate cat with a peg leg and eye patch, and an alcoholic skeleton who reveals the path to freedom. These scenes still play like gangbusters today, and capture the smart soul at the heart of the work.
The parts that terrified me as a child—other than Mommy Fortuna’s deranged, untimely demise—were all about the Red Bull: The giant, supernatural beast that turns out to be under the control of King Haggard. It’s drawn in shades of deep blood red: half menacing cloud of ambiguous shape, half densely lined muscles and starkly rendered body. It’s an all-too-real (and out of control) animal combined with the abstract force of an ethereal presence, like The Nothing from The NeverEnding Story. That fusion of material and magical, organic and fantasy, is what lends the creature such imaginative force. In Noël Carroll’s book The Philosophy Of Horror, he defines monsters as necessarily interstitial: They resist categorization, and that inability to place them within clear boundaries creates anxiety and dread. It we can’t explain it away, we can’t neutralize it in our heads. That’s the power of monsters; that’s the power of the Red Bull.
King Haggard, on the other hand, generates anxiety for a very different reason. An aptronym if ever there was one, I suspect Haggard stands alone among animated villains: He has forced all the unicorns into the sea not because he’s evil or bears them any ill will, but simply because he’s depressed. As he explains to Lady Amalthea, he finds joy by looking out into the sea, and the knowledge of their majestic presence under his control gives him momentary respite from the crushing ennui that governs his life.
And that kind of crushing depression is scary to a child or an adult. Children fear it because it’s a mindset that is (hopefully) inexplicable to them, a threat that could potentially take over and drive someone to ruin all that is good in the world. For adults, who have presumably had some experience with the emotion, it’s a possibility that is always there, one that we’ve seen in others, one latent in ourselves. We can pity Haggard even as we condemn him. In the end, as Haggard’s castle collapses and he falls to his death, he cries out, “The last! I knew you were the last!” The world can never be remade to suit a depressive; ultimately, they know that trying to control the world around them is unsustainable. The solution can only ever be inside yourself, and to reject that, as Haggard does, is to reject your humanity. It’s not going to end well.
The Last Unicorn will endure as a film for reasons both intellectual and aesthetic. It’s full of rich ideas and revisions of outdated, sexist stereotypes, and thereby feels more modern than many animated classics. Additionally, it’s often gorgeous: The lushly rendered landscapes are impeccably drawn. Plus, it’s so endearingly odd. The anachronisms, the bizarre dialogue, even that damn tree with the boobs are all singular touches that push the film into a realm all its own. It didn’t scare much, this time around. That’s probably for the best, as re-developing nightmares based on The Last Unicorn in my mid-30s would be embarrassing. But it was a welcome discovery to realize just how strange the meat is of this weird little movie, and how well placed its heart.