I loved The Last Unicorn as a child. I didn't just like it a lot — I seriously loved it. I rented the classic Rankin/Bass animated film from the video store (remember those?) every weekend for about three years straight. I thought nothing could possibly be as beautiful as the unicorn in that movie, and didn’t really mind that the bulk of the dialogue flew right over my head. It wasn’t until I watched the film as a teenager that I realized that The Last Unicorn is really not a movie intended for kids.
For one thing, it’s full of elements that range from the slightly disturbing to the legitimately scary. One scene that has been burned onto my brain since childhood is the harpy literally murdering and eating a witch. But more importantly, the themes that run throughout the film run completely contrary to the “It’ll all be OK” ethos that underscores most kids' movies. Based on a brilliant novel — written for adults — by Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn tells us that life isn’t fair, that people are flawed, and that we don’t always get what we want. But for all that, I still love it, perhaps even more than I did as a child, because it’s honest. Despite all of its trappings of fantasy — unicorns, wizards, magic, fiery hell-beasts — The Last Unicorn feels real. And it has some important lessons to share.
1. You Can’t Wait For Good Things To Come To You
One of the most emotional scenes of the movie is Molly Grue’s confrontation with the Unicorn. Molly has wasted her youth and innocence waiting for a unicorn — for something magical — to come to her. As she desperately cries, “Where have you been?” the painful truth emerges that she never should have waited. She should have made her own life what she wanted it to be.
2. Walk, Don’t Run
As the Unicorn herself warns, “Don’t look back, and don’t run. You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention.” This is essential advice for the next time you run into a vampire.
3. The Things You Fear Will Never Go Away Until You Confront Them
... Even when that fear is a monstrous bull. The Unicorn embarks on her journey because her kind have all disappeared; the Red Bull has herded them all into the sea. The Unicorn nearly lets him push her into the ocean as well, but ultimately, she finds her courage and fights back. It’s only by standing up for herself that she’s able to save the others.
4. Nothing Will Love You As Much As A Tree
As if we didn’t already know this from The Giving Tree. In what is arguably the most bizarre scene in a very bizarre movie, Schmendrick the Magician accidentally makes a tree sentient. The tree declares her undying love for the hapless magician, and almost smothers him between her giant breasts. As she does so, she declares, “There is no immortality but a tree’s love.”
5. You Cannot Look For Happiness Outside Yourself
King Haggard cannot figure out how to be happy. He thinks a son might make him happy, so he adopts a son. He isn’t happy. He thinks unicorns might make him happy, so he has the Red Bull drive them all into the sea. Still, he is not happy. The truth is that he never will be happy, so long as he looks to others to fill that void. Happiness, as we're so often told but rarely believe, comes from within.
6. We’ll Still Want Wine, Even When We’re Dead
The skeleton who guards the entrance to the Red Bull’s lair has been craving a good glass of pinot for ages. So what if he can’t taste anything? He remembers. I know this scene is supposed to be freaky, but frankly, I feel this guy. I’ll probably want wine in the afterlife, too.
7. To Have Joy, One Must Also Have Pain
At the end of the film, the Unicorn says she is different from all the other unicorns. She feels regret. She regrets because, as a human, she was able to feel love. She recognizes that one goes with the other, and is thankful for both. This is a powerful, and difficult, lesson for anyone. To love is to risk feeling pain.
8. Life Isn’t A Fairy Tale
The Last Unicorn may look like a fairy tale, but this is no Disney happiness extravaganza. At the core of the story are the lessons that people are flawed and that not everyone gets a happy ending. We can only try to be our best selves, and to make life better for others. But that doesn’t mean that bad stuff won’t happy anyway. Pretty heavy stuff for a “kids’ movie.”
Images: Rankin Bass; ITC Entertainment (2); Giphy (6)