Reflections: The Last Unicorn
I don’t know what you did growing up, but I spent quite a bit of time going to the movies. I guess that might be one of those strange things that we go through. Some kids spend time in books and some spend time in front of the television. Mind you, I am not talking about the kids that played sports and that was what they defined themselves as. Right now I am merely digging through the world of stories. (I’ll have you know we were well rounded back then we spent time playing football, baseball, and hockey… all the good sandlot stuff, well except for the hockey, we did that on ice, out in the swamp a couple blocks from where I grew up… Now that just sounds weird but I think I might have slipped into a strange tangent…)
Anyway, sure there were movies and shows on television but the time I am thinking about was a bit before cable really moved into our neck of the woods and VCR tapes were all but unheard of, prices making them out of the market for ordinary human beings. But at the time movies were prevalent and accessible. Midnight movies were cheap and there were a number of theaters around us that had $.99 Tuesday night movies.
It was a beautiful thing to see lines formed for movies that stretched around the building. Oh wow, I remember for E.T. the lines were long weeks after it had opened. Even then I managed to see that one at least three or four times before it left the theaters.
But that was the thing right, movies would leave the theater and you wouldn’t be able to see them again unless they had a return engagement. We didn’t have unlimited access to movies like we do now. For some readers this may sound like the dark ages but that was how we went through life. Can you imagine, Star Wars, the original movie had never been available on regular television. That was when we got the ill fated Christmas special, but that is something for a later date.
It was a crazy time, for sure. When we wanted to see a movie we had to make sure we made it out to the theater and if it was good enough we saw it a number of times before it went away. Come to think of it, I think I saw the original version of Clash of the Titans in the theater nine times. Seriously, this was a time in history when it wasn’t uncommon to go to the movies three or four times a week, especially in the summer.
Okay, so enough about all that. Really this was all just the warmup as we pull into the meat of this recollection. As it turns out, the classic movie, The Last Unicorn has become available on Netflix. For those who may not know this one, this was the cartoon adaptation of the story written by Peter S. Beagle (Viking Press 1968). The film premiered in 1982 and was directed and produced by Arthur Rankin Jr.
I honestly don’t remember how many times I saw it when it came out but I did see it a few times. Of course I had to spend some time with it again and see if it held up to the nostalgia. What I found was, yes, still love the movie. But at the same time there were a few things that I realized within the structure of the cartoon that are a bit dated but at the same time the story is just as good now as it was then.
So realize that a few of my complaints right now are more inline with aesthetic elements not story elements. Chief among those are the perceptions of the establishment. This is a fantastic storyline with fantasy elements, so what is done with such things? They are immediately relegated as stories for children.
This isn’t to say that there are elements in here that would be bad for children to see. No sex and no nudity, the deaths are off camera (yes there is some death in this). All this is good because it leaves the film available for that younger audience. Adults would be able to see it with their kids and enjoy it as well. But at the same time it is the fantasy and the magic and the wistful nature of the story that means most adults at the time would blow it off.
This story is a great example of fantasy stories that carry themes complex enough for adults to appreciate them. Thankfully, we are reaching the stages where a story isn’t automatically delegated as a child’s story, simply because it is a cartoon. Which brings me to my next complaint.
The songs. Yes, there are a few times within the story when a few of the characters have songs. I admit right now that I have yet to read the book (Yep backlogged on all the books I should be reading). But for me, the songs were something that didn’t need to be within the story at all. They screamed to me that thing of children’s stories again. When you look at a number of the cartoon movies over the years, songs as part of the story were thrown in. I think we can thank Disney for this addition (imagine those old boring as hell fairy tales without the music, Snow White would have nothing worth watching left). In a way these were thrown in for the adults. I imagine it was a thought that adults would be bored by the story itself so they needed something else to entertain them.
But really, each of these complaints is only minor when you look at how good the story was overall. Yes, by some standards today it might not be as exciting because there aren’t huge armies going to war or anything of that nature, but what you have instead is an engaging story fueled by speculative notions.
I came away from the viewing with a couple good bits of dialogue that made the trip down memory lane well worth it. The first “Happy endings don’t come in the middle of a quest.” This scene comes about at a pinnacle moment for the unicorn. She has lived as a human for a short time and has begun to forget who she was. And she is about to face the hardest part of her quest. She has the opportunity to take the easy way out.
This line, this thought, is wisdom that fits so well in our own lives. We could always take the easy way out. But when we do that, we don’t get the rewards that we have worked so hard to achieve. There will always be times that will test us, times that will make us question the logic of what we are doing. And it is in those darkest times that we shouldn’t settle for the easy answer.
The next bit of dialogue comes during the moment of the unicorn’s battle with the red bull. Molly screams at Schmendrick “What is magic for, if not for saving a unicorn?” But it is Prince Lir that answers, “That’s what heroes are for.” Such a powerful statement.
As far as symbolism goes within stories, many times magic is the easy way, the unpredictable trickster of answers. It always comes with a price. But it is the hero, the man (or woman) who risks it all with nothing but their personal bravery that wins the day. This is a moment where the story also makes an important distinction as well. In the end the hero, the brave Prince Lir is trampled by the bull. Though he is a hero and brave, it isn’t his story. It is when the unicorn shows her own bravery that the bull can be defeated.
And yet another message to take into our own lives. There are no easy answers. There are no short cuts. It is only when we put on a big kid pants and confront our problems and obstacles, that we can find the path to our win. Even when we don’t get exactly what we wanted, we still come away stronger than we were before. And this is what the unicorn came away with. Sure she won the day and freed all the others but she was changed, she had gained something more. She was the only unicorn to know what it was to be human, to be mortal.
Spend some time with this movie if you get a chance. It is well worth the hour and a half, maybe more if you think about it afterward. I mean how can you go wrong with a movie that has the voice talents of Alan Arkin, Angela Lansbury, and Christopher Lee to its credits. (hey look at that I just name dropped people I don’t know).
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