I was afraid to re-watch this movie in order to review it. It was one of my all-time favorites as a child, and I was afraid that re-visiting it with a critical eye would expose it as being full of the stereotypes and limiting messages I'd found in so many other films I'd watched as a child. But I pushed my fear aside, and I'm so glad I did. This film is even better than I remembered!
The Last Unicorn is the journey of a unicorn who seeks others of her kind because she's suddenly discovered she may be the last one. Her travels take her to a castle where a lonely, controlling king has used his monstrous red bull to drive all of the unicorns into the sea in order to quench his thirst for power and his desire to surround himself with joyful things. Along the way, she picks up a bumbling magician named Schmendrick and Molly Grue, the only woman in a band of traveling thieves. With their help, she makes it to the castle, where Schmendrick turns her into a young woman to save her from the red bull. In her new human form, she lives in the castle where she is ruthlessly pursued by the king's adopted son, Prince Lir. As the unicorn begins to lose sense of her identity and struggles with remembering who she is and why she's there, her friends work to figure out how to get to the red bull's secret lair and rescue the unicorns. When they find it, she fears returning to her true form and debates the mission, but her friends (including the prince) help convince her to stay true to herself. She returns to unicorn form, defeats the bull, saves the unicorns, and once again reigns as protector of her forest, leaving behind the life she momentarily knew as a human.
In addition to being a fairly intricate and unique storyline (based on the novel by Peter S. Beagle, who also did the screenplay), it is also beautifully animated with an excellent score.
This film is filled with powerful women. The unicorn herself sets out on a dangerous and frightening journey because she knows she must save the rest of her kind. She leaves the safety and comfort of her forest home to do so, fully aware of the risks but determined to do the right thing. Along the way, she becomes a spectacle and an object of desire. When men try to capture her, she fights back and escapes. She is momentarily captured by Mommy Fortuna, a witch who runs a traveling circus, but she escapes by setting free the Harpy, the only other creature of the circus that is real and not an illusion of Fortuna's spells. Even the villains are powerful women.
As a woman, the unicorn faces the pressures to conform to the traditional fairy tale. The prince tries to woo her by slaying dragons and acting as a traditional hero. By defying the stereotypical "fair maiden," she also teaches Prince Lir that he can step outside of his stereotypical role. In the end, Lir steps in to save her from the bull, but he fails and is killed. The unicorn (returned to her true form) brings him back to life, the one thing she can do to show that she was touched by human emotions, but not enough to give up her identity.
I also really appreciate the complexity with which the identity struggle unfolds. Prince Lir (and the traditional life he offers) is not vilified or over-simplified. Instead, the unicorn must make grand decisions about who she is and what she wants from her life. As the video above shows, that's not an easy choice, and I think that's a realistic portrayal of the identity struggles we all undergo, and it's a powerful message for children to see.
The unicorn's human form does adhere to stereotypical standards of beauty, with long, flowing hair, big round eyes, and a very thin frame. The human version is also shown to be fairly weak. She spends a lot of her time whining about her confusion and waiting inactive for someone else to unravel the riddle of the castle. The human form is not nearly as strong of a female role model as the unicorn.
There is virtually no racial diversity in this film. Also, the human form is supposed to be strikingly beautiful, and she is very, very white. Her hair is white. Her clothes are white. Her skin is white. While this is a reflection of the transformation from an all-white unicorn, it also portrays a white body as the most beautiful.
The Last Unicorn offers a complex look at identity struggles through the lens of a well-developed quest story. Featuring strong female characters in the protagonist, the villains, and the secondary characters, it demonstrates multiple versions of femininity. It offers an alternative to the traditional story of romance and strongly promotes the message of discovering who you are and being true to yourself.