‘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.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Jen

    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. :)

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

  • 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.

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

  • 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

    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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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