‘The Last Unicorn’ Explained: From Tough Sell to Cult Animated Film

It’s a premise oddly fitting for today’s current political climate: A powerful, sadistic ruler views the world as fundamentally sad, and can only derive joy from the imprisonment and destruction of whatever is beautiful in the world.

That’s just one of the dark themes in The Last Unicorn, a strangely adult animated film from 1982. It’s one of those movies that looks like it’s for children, but the longer you watch, the more chilling it becomes. It’s not the violence that makes it scary—it’s the stark depiction of sorrow and regret and the passing of time.

Where Did The Last Unicorn Come From?

Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Peter S. Beagle (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

We have writer Peter S. Beagle to thank for the original novel and the screenplay, though his inspiration may have been some ancient tapestries called The Hunt of the Unicorn from the late 1400s. Like the film, the tapestries feature heavily allegories to Christ (though those allusions may be accidental in the film).

In an interview several years ago, Peter recalled his childhood habit of weaving tales: “I made up stories before I could read,” he said, “and got my mother to write them down.”

When he was 19, he was hanging out with friends over the summer, and “there was nothing to do but start writing a novel.” He wrote three chapters of the book A Fine and Private Place, then finished it in the fall and it was published immediately.

As a professional, he had numerous high-profile projects: he wrote the “Sarek” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and also the screenplay for the Ralph Bakshi version of Lord of the Rings—another very dark film. “This movie was not a success,” Peter said. “But I got more work out of it.”

the last unicorn


Making the Unicorn

Finally, the opportunity arose to turn his 1968 book into a film. It was a tough sell—animation was a losing proposition in the 1970s, and even Disney was considering getting out of the business. At one point, the company that made the Charlie Brown cartoons was going to make it; but the wife of an executive begged Peter Beagle to find a better company. Eventually, it fell to Rankin Bass—not a well-regarded company, which horrified Peter at first.

But fortunately, Rankin Bass farmed the animation out to Topcraft, a Japanese company that would go on to make Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind before the company dissolved and many of the artists—including famed animator Hayao Miyazaki—left to start Studio Ghibli.

And so, the pieces started falling into place for the film. The voice cast is nothing short of magnificent—Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lee, Alan Arkin, Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges—and many of the actors were already fans of the book before coming aboard. Tammy Grimes, though not a household name, imbues the character of Molly Grue with a wistful mourning.

the last unicorn

And perhaps “wistful mourning” is the best way to describe the theme of the film. There’s a witch who seeks to achieve immortality by committing evil acts that will be remembered after her death; and a unicorn who forgets that she was magic when she is turned into a human. The king can never be happy unless he reflects on his terrible deeds; and even when the heroes are victorious in the end, it is with heavy regret for the corruption of innocence that is required.

It’s a strange film, one of a kind and wholly unique. And in that respect, it’s a bit of a unicorn itself.