When the titular mythical creature in Rankin and Bass’s The Last Unicorn is transformed by magic into a human woman, her first reaction is despair. “I can feel this body dying all around me,” she sobs. It’s a gut punch of a line. The way she delivers it, it’s almost impossible not to start thinking about your own body rotting where you sit, the sag of your flesh as it inexorably loosens and thins, your bones as they grow brittle, your eyes as they cloud and fail. To the unicorn, untouched by time, the experience is as shocking and transformative as a child’s first brush with death.
Nearly every character in the film wrestles with mortality in one way or another. The huckster witch Mommy Fortuna (Angela Lansbury) admits she keeps an immortal harpy captive—knowing it will kill her when it inevitably breaks free—so that she’ll be remembered forever. Molly Grue (Tammy Grimes) berates the unicorn when they meet for coming to her only when her maidenhood is spent. The self-loathing in her voice when she says “how dare you come to me now, when I am this?” is crushing, a grown woman reckoning all at once with her lost youth.
Even the film’s central conflict—the abduction of the world’s unicorns by King Haggard and his demonic minion the Red Bull—stems from Haggard’s desire to possess eternity, to hoard for himself an endless source of happiness and beauty even as old age devours his spindly, withered frame. The Last Unicorn is one of the few children’s movies to understand that kids are already starting to grapple with thoughts of death, love, and loss. Its admirable respect for its young audience allows it to confront these feelings frankly in tones sometimes broad, sometimes complex and difficult. In effect, it is a primer for confronting death.
Intimacy with Death
The film dwells at length on the many ways in which we sit with the knowledge of our own inevitable deaths. King Haggard’s bottomless hunger for happiness, Mommy Fortuna’s easygoing fatalism, the Unicorn’s confusion and terror leading her to seek solace in love—each is part of an intricate portrait of how it feels to know you’re going to die. The Unicorn’s fear and revulsion not just at the idea of death but at the physical experience of it give us a child’s perspective, instinctual and intense, while Molly’s embittered anger represents a more adult frustration born out of awareness of the passage of time.
Even in its lighter, more comedic moments, The Last Unicorn has eternity on its mind. When Shmendrick (Alan Arkin) the magician accidentally brings a tree to life, it tells him almost at once “There is no immortality but a tree’s love.” This idea that the world will carry a memory of us after our passing recurs throughout the film. Fortuna’s desire to live on through her destroyer the harpy, Lir’s (Jeff Bridges) remembrance by the Unicorn due to their brief courtship—these dynamics illustrate the ways we learn to think of death in order to live with our knowledge of it.
To Know Regret
The Unicorn’s love for Prince Lir is, like all mortal experiences, a thing which will decay and fade. Her struggle to retain her memories and identities as she is swept away in a haze of romance is one of the film’s defining conflicts, a battle between innocence and vulnerability, love and immortality. Although she chooses a mortal life with the prince, reconciling herself to the inevitability of her own death by forming a connection to another person, circumstances force her to revert to her original form in order to rescue the imprisoned unicorns. Their release and the death of the Red Bull ends Haggard’s life, his teetering castle—its precarity a metaphor for his fragile, deluded state—collapsing into the sea as he is stripped of the denial he used to insulate himself from reality.
The Unicorn is denied this easy release. Once the credits roll she returns to her timeless forest, but like the millions of children who’ve shared her story since the film’s premiere in 1982 she now carries within her the bittersweet knowledge of her own mortality. She cannot go back to a world before her experiences as a mortal woman or leave behind the painful truth of her own brush with death. It’s a film on the cusp not of adulthood, but of adolescence and the combination of brazen invulnerability and raw, exposed emotional chaos it carries with it. Where most children’s films remain happily within the circle of innocence, The Last Unicorn pushes toward its outermost edges and into the beautiful, dangerous wilderness beyond.