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Review Of The Last Unicorn

Children’s animated fantasy movie with surprisingly deep thoughts about personal identity and immortality.

The Last Unicorn (1982 Western animated fantasy film): occasionally referenced, I’d never watched it because I confused it with The Unicorn Chronicles novels, and assumed I’d already watched it. This was a mistake. The Animation Obsessive essay on the unusually Japanese production of The Last Unicorn made me curious, and reading Wikipedia, I realized my confusion.

It seems like a bland My Little Pony-esque film for small girls, but It is worth watching even if you are not a small girl. It (like the novel) is a cult film: pieces of it break off inside people and stick around.

The Last Unicorn is part of no franchise, and has no real sequels nor prequels, nor spinoffs. It stands alone as a singular film, neither fish nor fowl: it is a Rankin/Bass film, opening with a long sequence unmistakably based on the Unicorn Tapestries so it already looks strange to the contemporary eye, and then it goes halfway to slow, stiff anime due to an unusual level of Japanese contribution, while incongruously adding long musical sequences of orchestral 1980s rock.1


Illustration of a highly symmetrical circular unicorn ouroboros with three white unicorns in a spiral. The image is monochrome, abstract, precise, and simplified. The unicorns have detailed outlines, expressive emotional eyes, and flowing manes and tails. The overall image has an ethereal, 1980s anime classic feel, evoking a dreamy and enchanting atmosphere. Created by Gwern Branwen on 2024-06-07 using DALL· 3 to illustrate his <em>The Last Unicorn</em> review, discussing the immortal eternal unicorns.

The plot makes more sense watched than read, but to summarize: a lone Unicorn, happy in her forest where it is always spring, learns that she has not seen any others in a long time because the others have all disappeared; they have been captured by a huge monster in the service of an evil king.

She goes to find them, and along the way, she encounters an evil old hag, who captures her for a circus. The hag is a failed witch, but she can cast illusions to make her circus impress peasants. Indeed, she has to cast an illusion on the Unicorn in order to let blind, non-magical commoners see the Unicorn at all—justifying it as the lie which tells the truth.2

In fact, only one of the magical beasts in the circus is a genuine immortal: an evil harpy who vows she will someday escape and get revenge. The hag knows this, but boasts that she has done what all the “real” magicians couldn’t—achieved immortality through the memory of the harpy, who will never forget who captured her & how much she hates the hag.3

One of her employees, also a failed magician, helps create a jailbreak. The harpy escapes, and immediately attacks the hag, who embraces the harpy’s swoop, exulting that “I held you! you could never have freed yourself alone!”, with the strong implication that she ate the hag alive (as well as the hag’s loyal hunchback assistant).4

The Last Unicorn pulls no punches, and the Unicorn & failed magician encounter a worn-out middle-aged woman, who dreamed of unicorns as a little girl (like so many little girls), but finally abandoned her dreams… only to encounter a real one:

Oh! Could it truly be?

Where have you been? Where have you been?

Damn you! Where have you been! ..where were you 20 years ago? 10 years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to?

How dare you. How dare you come to me now—when I am this?


…it would be the last unicorn in the world that came to Molly Grue.

…It’s alright. I forgive you.

To a 10-year old, this scene means little; to their parents watching along, or to someone remembering it decades later, it will mean much. We all know someone whose life was ill-timed by just a few years or decades—and may be that person.

With Molly Grue, they arrive at the king’s seaside castle where the Unicorn are imprisoned. But the three are nearly captured by the king’s monster, still hunting for unicorns, and escape only when the failed magician turns the Unicorn into a beautiful human woman, of no interest to the monster.

They instead join the castle in disguise, to investigate the monster and the missing unicorns. The king’s son & the Unicorn begin to fall in love during the long covert search. The ancient dying king takes no interest in the unicorn, as she gradually begins to lose her unchanging immortal nature, turning into an ordinary mortal. Exhausted by the world, he instead obsessively watches the sea around the castle wash in and out, eternally, because only the waves last and will not disappoint him by changing or dying.

In the final showdown, the king’s monster tries to drive the Unicorn (now turned back into a unicorn), into the sea’s waves, where it turns out all the other unicorns had fled to escape him, changing into water spirits; the prince dies fighting the monster, and the Unicorn is motivated by her love & rage to defeat the monster (as no other unicorn was—each alike, they fled into the sea rather than fight the monster). The freed unicorns flood out of the water, destroying the castle and the king, reviving the prince, and the unicorns return home.

The unicorn likewise begins to leave, and expresses fear: some part of her is still mortal, and she has felt things no unicorn could have ever felt, like hunger and regret.5 The failed magician wonders if he did the right thing: by turning an immortal unicorn into a human woman, perhaps he sinned by changing the unchanging; he tainted it with mortality & emotions, and rendered the Unicorn unable to truly be a unicorn again. The Unicorn states that the regret was worth it for the eternal joy of restoring unicorns to the world, and that if one sorrow also lives as long as that joy… she thanks the magician for that too. She then leaves for her home forest (which looks just as before), never to see them again.

The Price of Immortality

The Last Unicorn turns out to synchronously parallel the SF Quantum Thief trilogy that I was reviewing at the same time (and author Rajaniemi to be a fan of it): their fundamental theme is “what is the price of immortality?”

The price of immortality is never fundamentally changing. This is the truth of all growth and transformation: the caterpillar dies, so a butterfly can live; all else is cope.

Personal Identity

The last Unicorn is the last because she alone has not changed.

When she changes into a mortal human, she begins to do things like want things a unicorn does not need, or fall in love with a handsome prince: a changeless, and thus immortal, unicorn does not love princes, nor wed them, nor age. If she did, the princess would cease to be a unicorn. She would only be a beautiful woman with fading memories of having been a unicorn.

To stay a unicorn, she must leave the prince, one way or another, and return to her forest, to do the same things she has done for millennia before, and do them for the rest of time. She chooses to stay a unicorn, and leaves. The prince will grow into a king, or something else, will change, live, and die. And the Unicorn will be in her forest, every day a perfect day, like always, treasuring her one and only regret.

When we understand that, we stop dreaming of immortality, and we turn off the last unicorn’s movie (itself immortal, unchanging), and, reconciled with ourselves (however briefly), go back to living.

  1. I am not surprised to hear online that it is apparently a good movie to watch while on LSD.↩︎

  2. Analogies to leaders like entrepreneurs or venture capitalists are left to the reader.↩︎

  3. The Unicorn: “Don’t boast, old woman; your death sits in that cage, and she hears you.”

    Hag: “Oh, she’ll kill me one day or another, but she’ll remember forever that I caught her, that I held her prisoner! So there’s my immortality!”↩︎

  4. Given that the Japanese animators apparently often went on to long careers, including at Studio Ghibli, one wonders about a lineage to the infamous “harpy scene” in End of Evangelion.↩︎

  5. The novel apparently expands on this (quoting a Reddit review on the theme of the unicorns’ inhumanity):

    I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.