‘The Last Unicorn’ Is The Anti-Disney Fairy Tale

DVD Cover Art for The Last Unicorn
Warning: Spoilers ahead

I was probably 6 or 7 years old the first time I saw The Last Unicorn. And while I thought it was pretty, I found it incredibly boring. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I rewatched it and understood why it was so boring to Little Girl Me – this is not a film for children, and never should have been marketed as such. Such is the major pitfall of an animated film – unless it explicitly says it’s pornography (and sometimes not even then – people are stupid), people assume it’s for children. What makes The Last Unicorn so special is it might be one of the most bittersweet and poignant fantasy movies ever made. It is the Anti-Disney film – everything that Disney fairy tales are not.
  • The characters are incredibly well fleshed out. They are deeply, deeply flawed. The Unicorn is proud (perhaps even vain), Schmendrick is overconfident, Molly Grue deeply regrets her lost youth, King Haggard is depressed to the point of selfishness, and Prince Lir does not know the difference between real heroism and pointless posturing. There are no sweet singing Princesses who can charm the forest animals here. The handsome Prince must learn how to be valiant, it does not come naturally to him. The virtues the characters value are the ones that are hardest to achieve – sacrifice, acceptance of mortality, acceptance of regret, and the twofold rush of joy and pain that being in love causes.
  • The content of the story is very adult. Other than one brief bizarre scene (more on that later), there is no comedy here. The mood is melancholy and lonely. Death is very clearly discussed, and even depicted once the Harpy kills Mommy Fortuna and her assistant, Rukh. The film’s depiction of a Harpy does not shy away from visual adult content, as she is shown to have three large and pendulous breasts with nipples. The Harpy’s breasts are not the least bit sexualized, they serve only to show that she is terrifying and female. The scene in which Schmendrick accidentally enchants a tree into coming alive and falling in love with him is also very adult in content, and almost seems like a Big Lipped Alligator Moment because it clashes with the rest of the film. The tree squishes Schmendrick against her enormous enchanted breasts, and it is clear that he does not find this predicament the least bit desirable. It is hard to determine what the film’s goal in depicting the two characters’ breasts this way was, but my best guess is that they wished to depict breasts as mere visual signifiers of a character being biologically female, not as physical targets of sexual desire.
Various scenes from the film
  • Dreams don’t come true. Yes, The Unicorn succeeds in her goal to free her fellow Unicorns, but to do so she had to give up her newfound mortality, and must live forever knowing regret, and remembering the love she once had. This taint of humanity even separates her from the other unicorns, as they would have no comprehension of human emotions such as these. The other characters don’t achieve their dreams either. Schmendrick does eventually prove that he is a talented magician, but clearly will never have true control over magic. Molly Grue has finally met her unicorn, and found second love with Schmendrick, but her youth and innocence are long since gone. Even King Haggard never truly achieved his dreams of genuine happiness, as he never gained control of all of the unicorns, and was otherwise miserable when he wasn’t looking at them.
  • The handsome Prince doesn’t get the girl. Lir’s love for Amalthea is such that he tells her not to give up on her quest in order to be with him, knowing that once she becomes a unicorn again she cannot stay with him. His love is also unrequited for a time, and is only reciprocated once The Unicorn forgets what she truly is and mentally becomes human enough to feel love. So, unlike in many Disney films, the “love at first sight” situation does not go nearly as smoothly. Their love for each other does not end once Amalthea becomes The Unicorn once more, but there is now no hope for them to marry. Both sadly accept that they are to be forever separated, which is even more painful for The Unicorn because she is the only one who will experience “forever.”
  • Molly Grue’s life story is a particularly sad and poignant one. As the commonlaw wife of an infamous outlaw known as Captain Cully, she has watched her youth fade, and become endlessly frustrated with having no money, no food, and endless mouths to feed. She is incredibly kind, but deeply dissatisfied with her lot in life. When she finally meets The Unicorn, she is enraged because, unlike in fantasy lore where the unicorn always comes to a beautiful young virgin, The Unicorn has come to her when she is middle-aged and, perhaps, sexually ruined. (Being the lover of an outlaw could not have done great things for her reputation.) “How can you come to me now, when I am this?” Molly bitterly asks her. This, I think, is a commentary on how fairy tales always seem to only value the young and innocent, and see women who are no longer young and virginal as corrupted, tainted, and worthless. The Unicorn, however, recognizes Molly’s incredible kindness, and, comforting her the best she can, tells her, “I’m here now.”
The Unicorn in her forest
  • The two antagonists of the story, Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard, contrast strongly with Disney villains in that they are very morally ambiguous. Mommy Fortuna is a powerful sorceress, who is one of the few humans who can recognize The Unicorn for what she is, rather than just as a beautiful mare. She uses illusions in her traveling caravan to give her patrons what they want to see, which is visions of terrifying mythical creatures. The Unicorn and The Harpy are the only real magical creatures she has captured. Mommy Fortuna knows that The Harpy will one day kill her, and, unlike Disney villains, is fully ready to embrace her fate and is unafraid of death. Her only desire is a perverted form of immortality – her body will die, but The Harpy will forever remember that it was Mommy Fortuna who captured her. King Haggard is even more morally ambiguous. He is not truly evil, but desperately depressed to the point where it has made him selfish. The sight of unicorns are the only things that give him joy, and make him recapture his lost youth. Unable to face life without knowing that his source of joy was available to him at any time, he instructed his pet, The Red Bull, to gather all the unicorns together and imprison them in the sea next to his castle. He has not done this for the sake of evil, but as an absolutely desperate attempt to cure his lifelong depression.
  • The themes of this story are incredibly abstract and deep. In most Disney films, you can generally glean themes about kindness, true love, achieving dreams, and conquering evil. Here, there are themes surrounding (im)mortality, regret, memory, lost love, tragic flaws, broken dreams, possessions, mental illness, revenge, and the very nature of human emotions. This is not a happy movie. It is bittersweet, at best, even though things turned out as well as they could have without there being a deus ex machina to solve everything. It is and never was intended to be a movie for children. It’s a movie for teenagers and adults who have already heard all the fairy tale cliches, and want something that will make them think rather than something that might give a superficial emotional catharsis. This movie made me incredibly sad, but it might possibly be one of the greatest animated fantasy films ever made.
Myrna Waldron is a feminist writer/blogger with a particular emphasis on all things nerdy. She lives in Toronto and has studied English and Film at York University. Myrna has a particular interest in the animation medium, having written extensively on American, Canadian and Japanese animation. She also has a passion for Sci-Fi & Fantasy literature, pop culture literature such as cartoons/comics, and the gaming subculture. She maintains a personal collection of blog posts, rants, essays and musings at The Soapboxing Geek, and tweets with reckless pottymouthed abandon at @SoapboxingGeek.

32 Comments

  • Posted November 15, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I bought the DVD a while ago. Truly a great film.

    What surprised me is that this was made by Rankin-Bass. Remember those clunky stop-motion Christmas specials? Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer? As well as “Frosty the Snowman”?

    Yeah, the same people.

  • Posted November 15, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I can occasionally see similarities in character design between this film and the Christmas specials, though it’s subtle. What is also notable about this film is that, although always intended for an English speaking audience, it was animated by a Japanese team that would eventually found Studio Ghibli.

  • Posted November 15, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I was so excited to see a post on this. I loved this movie as a child (probably for the sole reason of a unicorn) and finally read the book as an adult. I remember loving it, but don’t quite recall anything else. After reading this, I now have the movie on my to-buy list and am longing to re-read the book. Thanks. :)

  • Posted November 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I cannot watch that film without crying. The moment the music starts, I’m in floods. Beautiful, beautiful film.

  • Posted November 15, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Did you know this was my birthday? Because an awesome post about my favorite animated movie is a great gift! I have seen this movie dozens of times, and see something new each time. The author of the book just regained rights to the film and plans to release a remastered version soon.

    Also, it sails through the Bechdel test. And Christopher Lee’s monologue as Haggard….swoon.

  • Posted November 16, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Posted November 16, 2012 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    No surprise about the Japanese animation. Pretty much everything Rankin/Bass did were animated in Tokyo, including those stop-motion specials.

  • Posted November 16, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I watched this movie on TV with my mother when I was 8 or 9 and fell in absolute love (also we both sobbed our way through the ending, haha). I read the book when I was 14 or so. What makes this movie “anti-Disney” is that it was based off of an adult book. (Despite the fact that, nowadays, it gets shelved in YA.) Even when Disney animated from a book or tale, the stories were always intended for young children (Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, the list goes on and on).

    Also, I didn’t know that factoid about the Japanese animation company. Very cool!

  • j
    Posted November 19, 2012 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    This was my absolute favorite film when I was little (first saw it around maybe age 8). I remember watching the tape so often it broke. It’s still one of my favorites as an adult, and I will always have a soft spot for it.

  • Posted November 19, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    This is my favorite movie and I’m so happy to see someone giving it the analysis it deserves.

    I became obsessed with this movie when I was 5. It made me feel things very strongly, but I had no idea what to make of it because I was so young.

    For some reason the ending makes me cry every time. I think the unicorn’s experience can be equatable to many people’s – anyone who travels, reporters who were in a place of devastation, anyone who has had a life changing experience that they can never really share with another person.

    Good job!

  • Posted January 12, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    My 4 yr old daughter fell in love with this movie and wanted to watch it all the time (sometimes 3 or 4 times in a row) when she would come see me. Despite the adult themes in the story, I’m glad she likes it so much, especially to combat the Disney princess programming she has. Have even found thus movie as a good way to help teach her about Jesus, through the unicorns sacrifice.

    One of my all time favorite books I have read (Peter S. Beagle), and if you haven’t read it, I would highly suggest it. Really impressed upon me just how deeply tragic this movie was. It makes me wanna cry at several points of the movie when I watch it now.

  • Posted February 3, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    This is such an amazing movie. I do think I was able to appreciate it as a child–but then, I had a more complicated childhood than most.
    I wish all women would stop showing their children and/or children they babysit the crap Disney still insists on churning out, and just watch this movie over ‘n over on a loop–or maybe commingled with ‘Brave’. ‘Tangled’ too was decent I thought..except for perpetuating the ‘lost girl apart from biological parents who love her and want her back’ myth. Most of us get the parents we do; we don’t get to go find our “real” [rich, white i.e. of high social standard in classist society] parents and leave the bad stuff behind with the ‘fake parent’ who has been masquerading as our real one for years. What false-promises b.s.

  • Posted February 8, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    This was my favorite animated movie as a child. I can’t tell you how many times I watched it over the years. I suppose I was a different kind of kid. My niece and nephews have no desire to watch this classic.

  • Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    That’s a shame! I guess wait until they’re a little older.

  • Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:53 am | Permalink

    I read it soon after writing this. Never had a book launch up to amongst my top 10 favourites of all time so quickly.

  • Posted August 1, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    I fell in love with this movie when I was six. I watched it endlessly, and when I saw the DVD at a grocery store this week I bought it straightaway (I’m 25 now). Looking back, I feel that it was incredibly important for me to immerse myself in a world where purity and goodness were real – when I was six, my mother was dying from cancer, my brother was becoming violent towards everyone, and all in all life was really dark and isolating. Six-year-old-me identified really strongly with the “I am the last” motif – the sense of being the only one left in the world who believes in goodness. The unicorn had incredible depth – especially for a female protagonist – and never needed to be saved, merely to be given the incentive and ability to stand against the enemy herself.

    Fairy tales like these are instrumental in shaping the moral imagination; the safe haven it provides allows children, especially young girls, to aspire to something beyond their immediate world. Love it as much today as I did back then.

  • Posted August 18, 2013 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    I loved this movie as a child. I knew that there was something deep and meaningful about it, and the end always made me sad but I loved it anyway. It’s a beautiful story of love, sacrifice, courage, uncertainty..it’s real in a lot of ways most stories aren’t. Now my four year old loves to watch it with me. The movie transcends age – you may not understand why, as a child, you enjoy it so much, but the message resonates anyway because it touches something emotional and emotion is universal.

  • TokenOfficeGoth
    Posted November 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Cannot express how much I love this film. As a child I rented it so many times I wrecked the tape. There is no Disney movie that affected me this much, not even close.

  • Oscar Adrian Gomez
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    I watched this when I was like 11 on tv, the song captivated me and so did the movie, in those times it was nearly impossible to get a tape in my city, so I watched every time I could on tv.
    Years later the characters, the animation, the song still captivates me, is sad that they don’t do animated movies like this anymore.

  • Daphne
    Posted January 26, 2014 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    It was originally a book; that’s why it had so much depth. It’s a satire on fairy tales, by Peter S. Beagle.

  • mchasewalker
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Excellent work Ms. Waldron! It’s exactly what I had in mind when I bought the rights to it in 1975– that it would be a post-feminist fairy tale for a new generation of young women.

  • Pepé Smith
    Posted October 6, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    My mom used to say her prayers with me every night on our knees and my name was unicorn. LoL I would stop her in mid-prayer if she mentioned my actual name.

  • nope
    Posted April 1, 2015 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    The book The Last Unicorn, written by Peter S Beagle, was released in 1968. At no point is the context of the Disney stories considered. Many are based on Grimm fairy tales, written circa 1810. The time difference of the source material alone could explain the discrepancies.

    We’re also not considering the circumstances of the production companies involved. Rankin/Bass and Disney are very different companies with very different ideals. Disney’s priority was animation quality, stemming from the early movie tradition of worrying about what was amusing to have on a screen rather than requiring a well considered plot. It isn’t difficult to write something more interesting than Bambi, but I guarantee you that never again will anyone animate using glass panels ten feet deep.

    As described here, the only thing that is genuinely different between the film styles is the shameless inclusion of titties. All I am left with is the feeling that you don’t know anything about animation.

  • Brian Jackson
    Posted May 24, 2015 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    This is just a suggestion, but I think the feminist ideology would be a lot more friendly and appealing to a wider audience if those who claim to represent it would stop saying blatantly negative things like “Dreams don’t come true.” It’s really a false statement and won’t win your any friends. Little wonder that organizations like Disney are winning the war to define gender roles. They are telling people to reach for their dreams. Just a suggestion, it’s your war, fight it however you want.

    I’m not suggesting the road to accomplishing ones dreams is all peaches and cream. Peter S. Beagle obviously understood this. The unicorn DID in fact free her people, but at the cost of knowing loss and sorrow. Schmendrick DID in fact become a real magician, but at the cost of accepting that he was simply magic’s conduit. Molly did find the unicorn again, but she walked a hard road to get to that point. Lir desired to be a true hero and Schmendrick helped him to see at the end of the book that a real hero would simply be a good and fair king, instead of selfishly chasing the unicorn his entire life.

  • Franchesca Irby
    Posted June 26, 2015 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I was an unusual child because I found this movie when I was five at Blockbuster and it became my favorite movie. Every time my mother took me to rent a movie, I only wanted this movie. At first it was because I was a young girl and I loved unicorns, but when I watched the movie I think I fell in love with animation. I grew up wanting to be an animator.

  • Troy Kokoszka
    Posted July 17, 2015 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Even when I was a child, I think I had an inkling that this was a sadder, more frank sort of fairy tale than I was used to. Seeing it when I was older only added to its depth. Great review!

  • Katara c.
    Posted July 24, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    You know, only after Googling it did I know this wasn’t meant to be a kids’ story… growing up it was only us kids that watched it 😛 But I’m glad that we did. Even though I watched this as a fairly young kid (it came out the year before I was born), I remember appreciating the sadness of it. This is what I remembered about it as a kid: the lovely music and animation, that scene where the harpy kills Momma Fortuna (which was terrifying), the drunk skeleton (which also creeped me out pretty bad), & that at the end, she is the only unicorn who knows regret (for real, I had actually forgotten most of the movie except those things, until I watched it again on Netflix recently). Gosh, I couldn’t have been more than maybe 7 when I saw that movie, and that ending stuck with me. I thought it was so tragic that she would have this sad emotion, that she would never be able to come back from it, that none of the other unicorns could share it with her. And you know, I’m glad that even though it wasn’t “a movie for kids” that I saw it anyway. I’ve treasured that story since then, and I wouldn’t have it any other way :)

  • alverant
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    I saw the move for the first time since I was a kid after I heard some people talk about it’s deeper meaning. I’m not good on picking up themes so I googled it and found your site. I think you did a wonderful job writing about it. Thank you.

  • Josh
    Posted April 26, 2017 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Just found this blog, and well done on breaking down this oft misunderstood story. As some posters commented already, it was originally a book and in fantasy but not fairytale. It is no more fairy tale than Anne McGaffrey’s or Steven Brust’s works. The film is a decently abridged facsimile of the book, despite its sometimes clumsy visual portrayal. Dialogue is rarely uselessly campy and actions both seen and unseen bear consequences. Not only is it the anti thesis to fairytale tropes as discussed by the OP, it is a well rounded narrative where all the pieces fit well. Even the tree scene is meant to underscore the fact that Schmendrik poses actual magical ability despite his incompetence. I agree with all the OP said concerning characters having to earn it…. Haggard and Fortuna not truly evil, the mage not truly spellworthy, the Prince not at all charming or at first truly brave.
    And my favorite bit… all the pieces of the puzzle fit nicely to wrap up the story… all actions are necessary: being captured led to scmendrik, who was necessary twice in dealing with the red bull; molly was necessary in helping along the human relationship between Amalthea and Lir; without her human form, the Unicorn could not have learned love, and so could not have lost it, and so would not have been spurred to fight back thus completing her quest; schmendrik and molly were both necessary for finishing the quest, as was Lir, as was the sacrifice placed on the Unicorn forever altered; nothing left but a few regrets and nothing more to say…

  • Alia Hassan
    Posted June 12, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    My mum thought this was a kid’s movie and gave me the VHS when I was very young, around 3 or 4. And I have watched it repeatedly until now that I am 28. To me, this movie is like the little Prince. Everytime I watch it I learn something new, which I love and not many things have this quality. As a kid I loved the music. The butterfly, the tree (I found it funny), the pirate cat and how brave the unicorn was for leaving its forest. How she had allies but saved herself. And it was my favourite adventure. And as I grew older I noticed the sad and complex undertones. Even America’s lyrics spoke to me differently. Especially “and it seems that all is dying, and will leave the world to mourn. In the distance here the laughter of the last unicorn” This movie is a timeless masterpiece and I have loved it dearly at every age of my life.

  • Luli Ura Hara
    Posted July 14, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Actually, The Last Unicorn was my favourite movie when I was a little girl. My other favourite one was Labirynth. Maybe I was a weird child, but that feeling of lonliness that the Unicorn had, was probably what attracted me the most. I remember I hated the idea of her with Prince Lir, I didn’t want her to be mortal, to feel what humans feel, because if that so, Unicorns will be lost forever. I know it’s weird for a child to think/feel this way, but that’s the feeling I remember, and how much I loved to watch it over and over again. And think about the Red Bull, everyone has they’re own Red Bull. Beautiful story, full of meaning. And the art is gorgeous. (Btw, sorry for my bad English!)

  • Izzy
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    When I first saw this movie, I was probably 3, and I watched it all the time for many years, until I got a nightmare about human-eating birds (Wonder where that came from? -wink wink) in which I boycotted watching my VHS tape for a good year or so, before returning to watching it in Kindergarten. It was only when I reached my teenage years that I realized that- wow- this is not a movie for children. This is a deep and thought inducing film, and as a child, I’m actually rather happy I was indulging in this movie instead of mindless shows- i’m looking at you, Barney. I may not know it now at the ripe age of fifteen, but im sure that in some way it changed me as a child and helped me mature over time.

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  • By free disney music on September 22, 2014 at 4:45 pm

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    ‘The Last Unicorn’ Is The Anti-Disney Fairy Tale | Bitch Flicks

  • […] Another animated film I saw as a kid quite frequently was The Last Unicorn, based on the novel of the same name by Peter S. Beagle, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The film is notable for being different from popular Disney fairy tales, as according to BitchFlicks‘ article, “‘The Last Unicorn’ Is The Anti-Disney Fairy Tale“: […]