The Last Unicorn 40th anniversary cover art

The Last Unicorn

By Lori Garrett | published Monday, January 13, 2014 |
Thursday Review contributor

I was not a particularly ‘girly’ girl as a child. I played with my older brother and his friends. I would rather run about outside and get dirty than have a tea party. Sure, I had stuffed animals and dolls, but the imaginative games I played with them had more to do with danger and war than with shopping or fashion. For example, my brother and I would often have his G.I. Joes ride into battle on the backs of My Little Ponies against the legions of Ninja Turtles and the 50 Foot women (who were very fashionable, but had decidedly bad hair cuts thanks to their five year old barber).

The one subject, however, in which I would claim I had a girliness overload, was unicorns. I loved them. I loved their majesty, their magic, their mystery. My half of our shared bedroom had pictures and posters and statues and music boxes and stuffed animals all depicting the mythical beasts. So of course, being a child of the 80’s, my favorite movie was The Last Unicorn, directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, and released by ITC in the fall of 1982. It was probably the only movie my parents could put in the VCR that would completely shut up my never ending cascade of questions.

As a teenager, I discovered that the movie was actually a book first, published in 1968 and written by Peter S. Beagle. If you call yourself a fantasy fan, and you do not know this man, then I suggest you run out to your nearest used book store or your local library and pick up any of his books. He blends humor and heart and magic with the real world better than any other writer I have had the pleasure of reading. Or meeting, in person.

This was probably one of the first ‘serious’ animated films. They used actual actors, not voice-over professionals. The score was done by Jimmy Webb, and performed by the band America. The screenplay was written by the author himself, who had also done the 1978 screenplay for the animated version of The Lord of the Rings (directed by Ralph Bakshi).

As the title implies, it is the story of a unicorn (Mia Farrow) that learns she is the last. After receiving some confusing yet helpful advice from a butterfly, she ventures into the world of man to find the others. It seems that the Red Bull had chased them down long ago, and drove them to King Haggard’s realm, which was quite some distance from her quaint forest. She soon learns the world has changed greatly since she was last out-whereas unicorns used to appear to young maidens in their time of need, and their magic was well known; now it seems most humans no longer are aware of unicorns and only see a white mare when they look upon her. Being a bit naïve, she is soon captured by a traveling carnival, and put on display. Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury), the old crone who runs the show, magically places a false horn on her prize so that commoners would see her for what she really is. It is here that she meets her first ally, Schmendrick the Magician (Alan Arkin). Without giving too much of the story away, I will just say that they escape in a rather violent scene involving the only other true beast that the carnival boasts, the Harpy Celaeno. Eventually they pick up another companion, Molly Grue, and make their way to the King Haggard and the Red Bull.

Through a bit of actual magic, Schmendrick disguises the Unicorn as a human girl and calls her the Lady Amalthea. He convinces the king (Christopher Lee) to hire him as a court magician-well more like jester-and house the three of them, enabling the Unicorn to look for her kin. Though the movie cuts out much of their time at the castle, you see through a musical montage how Haggard’s son Prince Lir (Jeff Bridges) falls for the Lady Amalthea and becomes a hero to try and win her heart. Eventually, though, as stories are wont to do, it had to end. In danger of becoming a human forever, Amalthea finally makes her way down to face the bull and save the rest of her kind. The ending can be called bittersweet at best, for her journey ends and she is successful, but the love that she and Lir shared could not continue once she was back to her true form, and it leaves them both changed forever.

This past December, I was lucky enough to meet the man behind my most beloved childhood characters. He is currently on a two-year screening tour of the United States and Europe. There are several upcoming shows scheduled in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Massachusetts with more as they are booked. I highly recommend attending the event. Mr. Beagle is a delightful man who took the time to meet each one of his fans personally, sign autographs and take pictures. And that was before we even filed into the theater. Before each screening, there is a Q&A session with Mr. Beagle who is game to answer any question you wish to ask. He details what processes he went through while writing the book, where the story came from in the first place (the whole idea came from a painting a friend of his gave him where unicorns were fighting bulls), even the reasons behind the names of the characters. Schmendrick, for instance, apparently is Yiddish for ‘someone out of their depth, a boy sent to do a man’s job’. It suits him well.

On the tour, they have partnered with several small time artists who created limited edition prints and other fantasy items that they sell during the signing. One of my favorites, costume designer JoEllen Elam from Firefly Path, is a special partner with them. Because I mentioned her design company during the signing, I was able to get a free souvenir that no one else at my screening was privy to. And I thank her. (I highly recommend checking her out, her fantasy designs are enchanting. I wish I was able to afford the exclusive Last Unicorn circlet when I went, but alas I will have to wait till they come back through next year. If you do get to go to a screening, mention that Firefly Path sent you and you may get a souvenir, too.) Plus, the local theater in which I attended the event, Sun-Ray Cinema in Jacksonville, Florida, was amazing. They tend to be booked into little niche theaters such as this where they serve pizza and beer directly to the customers in their seats, which beats plain old popcorn and soda any day.

If you would like to do any further investigating on the mentioned items in this review, follow the links provided below.

The Last Unicorn Tour

Firefly Path

Sun-Ray Cinema