Considering that lately I’ve been in a rebellious frame of mind, it’s fitting that my selection for the Horseathon stretches the rules of “horse” as well as “classic film.” Having grown up with horses, there is no other suitable excuse for what I am about to do, except perhaps that I’ve reviewed National Velvet (1944) at least twice and have nothing further to say (other than to reiterate again that if you haven’t seen it, you should). Also, I’ve been looking for a compelling reason to write about this particular film, so a giant THANK YOU for the Horseathon! Regardless, I hope you enjoy my little foray into 1980s animation.
I remember loving The Last Unicorn (1982) growing up. We rented it countless times. In college, when I ran into a copy on DVD, I had no choice but to purchase it immediately, full of nostalgic glee. The story depicts the life of a unicorn, who hears that she must be the last of her own kind. She gets vague advice from a poetic, flighty (pun fully intended) butterfly, and leaves her home in search of the other unicorns. On her way, she encounters other perspectives and different forms of magic: humans who have no concept of it, a not-so accomplished magician (who oddly reminds me of Rincewind the Wizard of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), a harpy (the darker side of her own magic), and the evil Mommy Fortuna, who captures animals and makes them appear to be magical creatures in her travelling novelty show. All of the other unicorns have been forced into the sea by the infamous Red Bull (who doesn’t give you wings, or freedom … I didn’t think it was funny, either) near the castle of King Haggard. King Haggard wanted all of the unicorns for himself, and has kept them prisoner in the sea.
The film is based on the book (with the screenplay) by Peter S. Beagle and features an all-star cast you might not expect: Alan Arkin, Mia Farrow, Christopher Lee, Angela Lansbury, and Rene Auberjonois, just to name a few. The film was actually animated in Japan, where the anime style for film was taking flight (though it originated in the early 1900s–for more information on the history of anime, click here.) This accounts for the trademark anime elements of the characters, including large eyes, somewhat exaggerated expressions, round mouths, and the unicorn’s not-so-horselike tail.
Now for the horse elements:
Mia Farrow plays “the unicorn” or “Amalthea,” as she is called when Schmedrick the Magician turns her into a human to save her from the Red Bull. As the unicorn travels the land, those unfamiliar with magic mistakenly see her as a beautiful, white mare. She quickly discovers how clueless most people are of unicorn legend.
This is about par for much of unicorn lore. In most stories about or including unicorns, they are rare creatures at best: pure, powerful, gentle, and in many cases the very holders of the world’s magic. Frequently, the story is that there are as few as one or two remaining in the world (think Legend, which came out a few years later). Unicorns are sometimes considered the landbound relations of the Pegasus, although the Pegasus derives from Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks considered the unicorn to be an actual creature, perhaps from India. The unicorn is referenced throughout ancient history, including Mesopotamia and in the Bible. Its magic and legend is so prevalent that it is often considered synonymous with the fantasy genre (particularly in the debates of fantasy vs. sci-fi, but we’ll leave that for another discussion).
Our fascination with unicorns resembles our fascination with horses in general, but on a different level. While horses are common–though beloved–tools of civilization, making and breaking societies in both agriculture and war, unicorns are a rare mythology that many storytellers are afraid to approach (vs. the current popularity of vampire lore, however destroyed it may be). Perhaps it is the sacredness of the creature, or the lack of depth (how can the embodiment of purity be a complicated character?), or our current social pessimism (evidenced by the re-popularity of dystopia) that drives us away from it. Regardless, the comparative rarity of unicorns in film reflect the rarity of the creature itself.
The answer is simply this: “film magic” could not have been created without the horse (please, they’re in so many films, though disproportionately the stars). The truly magical unicorn, however, creates its own magic, making it sometimes unwieldy in the unprepared film. Nevertheless, it reflects our own awe of seeing that rare bit of cinematic perfection that makes us sit in wonder. The Last Unicorn can hardly be regarded as that film. Though entertaining, the story trolls along a bit, and the characters tend to be underdeveloped. That doesn’t even cover the fact that the singing in at least one or two songs is noticeably flat. Still, it’s a cult classic of the 1980s and provides a little of what we all need: one last bit of purity in a corrupt, selfish world. That is, after all, the significance of the unicorn.
This post is my entry for the Horseathon, hosted by Page of My Love of Old Hollywood. The horses will run across the blogsophere through tomorrow, so make sure to check out all of the entries. And come back tomorrow for another equine contribution from the crew here at True Classics!