Wednesday, August 7, 2013


As I've said before, The Last Unicorn is a source of comfort and nostalgia for me. I really want to watch or read it right now, but I'm traveling and unable to access any of my copies of the movie, the book, or the soundtrack. So instead, I'm going to write about it and why it's awesome and any fantasy fan of any age should love it in general, as well as why it's so personal to me. Except not in that order.

"Am I the only unicorn there is? The last?"
My oldest happy memory is of being curled up under  my maternal grandma's arm, watching the VHS copy of the movie she had just brought over for me and my older sister (under her  other arm).  This  is important because I have plenty  of memories  of things from before that  moment, which was when I was three or four, but they're all dark and bad- snippets of my biological father yelling at someone, of him pushing  me off the couch, of my mom crying when she thought I couldn't see... those are all I have of anything earlier. I don't know  where Mom was during this first viewing, but until my biological father was gone, I never really felt safe except for that moment (and then there are plenty  of happy memories, like  Mom, my older sister, and I having  breakfast together, of when she took me with her when she voted for Bill Clinton the first time around).

So when things get really crappy, I like to watch the movie again to try and escape back to that feeling. It may be kind of strange, but if I let myself and don't try too hard, I can kind of forget whatever made me pop it in to begin with, and for that hour-and-a-half, I feel like everything is just fine, and I'm loved and cared for. So I watched it enough as I was growing up that by the time I was in high school, the VHS was worn and didn't work any longer.

The box is destroyed, too. It took me a long time
to find an image of the right VHS copy- this thing must
be hard to pretty rare nowadays. 
And I ended up buying a copy of the original DVD release, then the BluRay combo with two different versions on it, which is now my preferred disc to use.

Because here's the thing. I didn't  realize it as a kid because unicorn! Prince! Talking cat! But it's actually quite dark and has myriad mature themes running through. And the "d"-word gets said a few times. So I, and a number  of fans, absolutely hated the first DVD release because they edited a, "DAMN YOU!" out of one of the best, most moving scenes in the movie (and a, "Damn!" from another scene, which reduced comedic effect). As a kid, I didn't realize how incredibly sad, mournful, and  of course angry the character  saying it is as the time, but  as I grew older, I came to recognize the power of that scene, and now, even though it didn't when I was little, that  part makes me cry  a little, every  time. And yes, the, "DAMN  YOU!" in there is incredibly moving because it shows just how broken the character feels- she uncharacteristically lashes out and goes beyond her usually somewhat blunt but sincere nature to one aiming deliberately to hurt. To hurt in the way she felt hurt. And then the moment when she comes around is just as powerful, too.

And there are multiple scenes like that in the movie, scenes I came to appreciate for their beauty and poignance when I became old enough to truly appreciate that in a movie.

Some other things I came to appreciate are: 

  • The art. I made the connection that it reminded me of Thundercats and the animated version of The Hobbit as a young-un, but when I got older, I realized it was produced by Rankin/Bass, the company that made all of those Christmas claymation specials in the sixties*. And I came to realize that yes, Topcraft, the animated studio that provided the art, made all those titles I was thinking of, and was actually the precursor to Studio Ghibli. The detail in the backgrounds, and the character design are incredible, and so many of the stills from the movie make for great wall-hangings (which isn't really the case for most Disney movies, as much as I love Disney).
  • The voice acting. Just look at this cast. Come the fuck on.
  • The music. It has a few lovely themes that invoke notions of a place and time closer to the Dark Ages or medieval times, yet it still manages to sound contemporary. The songs by America are kind of corny on their own, yeah, but they fit the film perfectly. And I really enjoy  the song Prince Lier sings because when you read or listen to the lyrics, you realize it has a very complex rhyming scheme, and the lyrics themselves are delightful and perfectly fitting for the way the film portrayed Lir. And the harmonies that pop out in the end when Lady Amalthea joins in the tune are wonderful. In truth, pretty  much all of the songs have relatively sophisticated rhyme  schemes and any time  there are harmonies, they're lovely. (And  yeah, Mia Farrow is terrible singing her solo song- that's why another woman does it on the soundtrack, and  also for her reprise during Lir's song in the movie already.)

Likewise, my love for the book the movie is based off of (and the screenplay was by  the same author, Peter S. Beagle) has evolved. I first read it  when I was thirteen or so, but I didn't own my own copy until I was in college. And by that time, I was able to appreciate the subtleties in Beagle's writing- the slight satire, the significance of the contemporary bits of poetry and song lyrics he inserted, the way his own depictions of the characters were less straight-forward, more complex than the movie (not that the movie's characters weren't interesting). In truth, the book is really a deconstruction of both fairy tales and the fantasy genre- there are a few moments where the characters and events don't quite break the fourth wall, but they sure as hell smack up against it, and in ways that are so easy to get lost in- ways that make it easy to forget that the fourth wall is being almost-crossed in the first place. (Like a scene  where a bunch  of characters are talking about what heroes are for.) It's no wonder the book has such a huge following and fandom (seriously, just Google it and let your eyes boggle at all of the fansites and boards and Deviant Art pages with pictures). Beagle is an incredibly beautiful storyteller, and the mythology he sets up in the book is solid and "believable" enough that it took me years to realize a lot of it is stuff he came up with (like the explanation for unicorns in the sea, for example). 

So I have a few copies of the book, too, as well as the most recent version,  a graphic novelization of it.

So not only do I love the book because it's the basis of the animated film, but also because it's an amazing story in its own  right- well-written, thought-provoking, and boundary-pushing  in subtle  ways that sneak  right by ya. 

Also, a small, interesting tidbit, Loreena McKennitt covered  the main title song from the movie a few years ago**:

When I think about it more, I realize that I don't really think the book or  movie were made for kids entirely. There's so much going on in both, the the themes are dealt with in such deep, usually brutal ways, I think Beagle  wrote both book and screenplay with the intent of hitting adults hard. Sure, kids can enjoy them, but adults can appreciate them.

Which leads  back  to yours truly. 

I've had a very difficult... well, I'll say  summer  to be  specific. But really, I've been pretty miserable since starting grad school. I'd watch the movie or read the book  to escape  all of the bullshit from my university and the people and institutions  that keep throwing me under the bus, taking advantage of me,  etc., and  it got me through strep and shingles and countless depressive moments. I was careless not to bring  it with me on this trip, especially since the thought crossed my mind as I was packing.  So since I love it so much, I won't try and pirate either the book  or movie, but if I end up going to a place with a bookstore before I leave Seattle, I'll probably end up buying another copy. 

I feel like I should confess, I already had all of these images in my
haddrive,except the one of the VHS tape...

Appendix: I found this tumblr slideshow thing when looking for a good picture of a particular scene. It's funny, and this person brings up a pretty good point I hadn't thought of: That some of the themes, while usually traditionally feminine, are done so well, they're really more gender neutral as it should be. And yeah, the Unicorn/Amalthea is feminine, but incredibly strong- the choice she makes in the end, and her ability to carry on, is worthy of any story hero.

Also, the title of the post comes from this

*When I was little, my favorite of these was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Unlike The Last Unicorn, I've grown to realize it's crap and the only reason I liked it was because Rankin/Bass was totally going for a pseudo-Tolkein thing in the way they  did it- really, the only  scenes worth watching are the ones where the forest deities are debating Claus's fate. And the part where they're all parading in at the beginning. 

**I can't help but think that the myriad other options for this song on YouTube that didn't have  clips from the movie  were made by people whose lives clearly aren't complete- because if they didn't think to at least get a single  image from the movie for a cover of its theme song,  they probably haven't seen it. Poor  saps. And yes, I'm slightly judging them. Not because they haven't seen it, but because... well... Sure,  Loreena McKennitt writes some kind of hippie stuff, but this cover is  just so far and away  from anything else in her personal lexicon that why these people didn't think to look into the song's origins  before posting  it on YouTube fails to come to me. Of course, this  could also be coming from my kind of sometimes snobby way of viewing music. 'Nother post, that is, and not even fully conceived, let alone up for your reading pleasure. 

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