Not all children’s movies are sunshine and rainbows. Although there is an accepted understanding that films specifically marketed towards children should be lighter fare, there have been cinematic periods of children’s movies that are not afraid of being slightly dark. In the early 1980s there was a welling of dark children’s films, and THE LAST UNICORN (1982) made its mark amidst that wave of disturbing films.
THE LAST UNICORN was adapted from the 1968 fantasy novel by Peter S. Beagle. Though the story was not written exclusively for children, the film adaptation is animated by well known children’s animators Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin. The cast is an impressive mix of actors and stunning animation, however, the story is what ensured this film’s legacy. There is one Unicorn left in the world; she is told she is the last of her kind. Yet, knowing in her heart that other unicorns must exist, she leaves the protection of the forest to seek her kind.
At the film’s core is the theme of loneliness, which is a disturbing subject for children. It is not merely that this Unicorn is waiting to find her parents or a friend, plots typical of children’s films. She wants to find the other unicorns, but she faces the distinct possibility that she is the last of her kind. Facing eternity as an immortal being is already daunting, but doing so alone without hope of ever finding a family or a mate is terrifying! Certain episodes of the Twilight Zone feature this fear of isolation, and yet, here we are seeing a film for children dwelling on the same issue within the first five minutes.
Soon after the Unicorn begins her quest for her fellow unicorns, a witch captures her. This witch, Mommy Fortuna, is a wicked woman who runs a traveling zoo filled with magical creatures. Though Mommy Fortuna’s magic is real, her creatures mostly are not. The caged animals are ragged and pathetic, but Mommy Fortuna puts spells on them so that expectant visitors to the zoo will see what she wants them to see. Mommy Fortuna has conjured it so that a regular snake is seen as a dragon, so that an aged lion appears as a Manticore, with the body of a lion, face of a man, and tale of a scorpion. Yet the worst of Mommy Fortuna’s magic is applied to two magical creatures that she disguises to look like themselves: she has cast a spell on the Unicorn to look like a true unicorn with a horn visitors can see, and a dangerous harpy to appear as a harpy. It is dumb luck that leads Mommy Fortuna to capture these magical creatures, but a dark twist that they are forced to mimic their own images.
Imprisonment is a denial of freedom and autonomy. This is frightening enough, but THE LAST UNICORN adds an additional level of imprisonment: a denial of identity. These creatures cannot come and go as the please, but are also not allowed to define their own appearance. Mommy Fortuna controls their presented forms. Even worse than the misrepresentation of the non-magical creatures is the presentation of the magical creatures. The Unicorn is in fact a unicorn, but she is not allowed to present herself as one. Mommy Fortuna has removed their agency in self-identification. Though in the zoo she is a unicorn, she is only identified as one because Mommy Fortuna says so.
Granted, not all children will be able to recognize the various layers of horrors of imprisonment, but THE LAST UNICORN would still be disturbing without these layers. Beyond Mommy Fortuna, the film has an evil king, a giant flaming bull, and a drunken laughing skeleton to scare the kids. The animation style of is not cutesy or charming. Each villain looks downright creepy, and the audience is not afforded the luxury of a safe visual reference.
At the time of its release in 1982, THE LAST UNICORN was in good company with creepy movies for kids. It was released along with THE SECRET OF NIMH and THE DARK CRYSTAL. All three are deeply disturbing films which are primarily aimed at children. To compare to live-action children’s cinema of the time period, THE LAST UNICORN was preceded by WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980) and followed by THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984). These films were not released back-to-back, but they do show the pattern of children’s films that were not all happy. It could be argued that these films show a certain respect to children. Rather than talking down to children and assuming that they are not capable of handling upsetting films, it is possible to create films for children that show the spectrum of human experiences, the good and the bad.