Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Last Unicorn

The other night I was in a local video rental place and I found a real treasure--the animated version of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. It's the story of a unicorn who has not left her enchanted forest in a long time. She discovers she is the last unicorn left on earth--and she sets off to find the rest of her kind. In the hands of a Disney-type animation house this would become a treacly, kid-friendly story with a few knowing smirks at the adults, at least one overly-hyper sidekick, and unavoidable musical numbers. But instead it's a strangely compelling, haunting movie--oddly poetic, and oddly adult--without any annoying cultural references.

I watched it when I was very young--I don't remember when, but I was definitely under ten. I remembered scenes from that movie in a way that made me feel like I'd dreamed them. They were archetypcal, poetic and almost unfathomable in the way scenes are in the type of dream that goes all the way to the core of you, to a place that can only communicate with your waking self through deeply personal metaphor.

This story might be kids' fantasy, but it does not sugar-coat the truth. The friends the unicorn accumulates in her travels are flawed and damaged. The most compelling character was the villain--he might have been a campy, cackling figure in a typical Disney movie; in this one, he's a deeply tragic figure.

The animation is very dated and took some getting used to, and the music is definitely an acquired taste--I loved it; you might not. But overall this movie made me think about the type of fantasy movies we show our kids today. They're aimed towards both kids and adults, just as this one was. But the nods in our movies are meant to be funny--kids are never exposed to wrongs that can't be righted. In The Last Unicorn, the ending is bittersweet--the unicorn finds love and loses it.

There's nothing in today's big animated features that is seminal enough to have imprinted itself indelibly in my consciousness, the way the images from this movie were so long ago. Most animated movies today are all show and no poetry, with the exception of movies like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. I believe that our kids' imaginations would be better served by movies that don't sugar-coat reality. Fantasy might be considered primarily a children's genre, but it is also, like dreams, an excellent way to communicate deep truths through compelling metaphor.

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