Schmendrick: That is what heroes are for.
In a certain lilac wood, the leaves and snow never fall. This eternal springtime is watched over, and caused by, its magical resident—a unicorn. Having never left her forest, the unicorn is surprised to overhear two hunters speaking about the disappearance of the unicorns. In fact, they believe her to be the very last.
Unwilling to accept this, the unicorn leaves the safety of her forest and sets out to find others of her kind, following the information given to her by a philosophical butterfly. Along the way, she learns through bitter experience of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. She is mistaken for a horse (much to her displeasure), captured and placed in a circus sideshow, and pursued by a demonic being—the Red Bull, which, according to local legend, is responsible for the disappearance of the other unicorns. She also meets allies who join her in her journey; the incompetent but sweet-natured wizard Schmendrick and Molly Grue, a middle-aged bandit woman with a purer heart than most virgins.
Their quest takes them to the barren lands of the embittered King Haggard, master of the Red Bull, and his naive foster son Prince Lír. It is here that the unicorn, superior and aloof to all mortals, is transformed into a mere human, taking the name "Lady Amalthea," forced to see and suffer human weakness and emotion firsthand.
One of the overriding themes is the power of memory. The King remembers feeling happy once and tries to recapture it by kidnapping unicorns; the skull remembers wine; Amalthea is in danger of forgetting herself; Molly Grue remembers her lost youth; and the unicorn will forever remember being in love.
The film's script was written by Peter S. Beagle himself. In July 2011, after years of legal dispute with the distributing company, he finally got paid.
Character traits have been moved to the Characters Page.
This film provides examples of:
- Adaptation Distillation: The animated version is held in high regard as being faithful to the text, even though significant parts of the book, such as the poetry and songs, were left out.
- The Ageless: As the unicorn herself says, unicorns can be killed. Nevertheless, they are eternal creatures of the world and do not simply 'vanish.'
- Almighty Idiot: The Red Bull has no real will or personality; he is just a mindless, pursuing force who surrenders the moment the (comparatively tiny) unicorn turns on him. In the book, it's said that he serves anyone who has no fear.
- Anachronism Stew: Intentionally, in the same vein as The Once and Future King, there are references to tacos, trains, magazines, Francis James Child's ballad collection, etc. in a medieval-Renaissance-Arthurian-whatever age.
- Animesque: Although always intended for an English-speaking audience, the dirty work of animating the film adaptation was done by a Japanese studio called Topcraft (members of which became founders of Studio Ghibli, incidentally). The anime influence on the movie is unmistakable.
- Anti-Magic: The unicorn's main power is to be proof against magic, though apparently she can only do it consciously. Mommy Fortuna is able to take her asleep.
- Anything but That!: Captain Cully's men reaction to his telling his bard to sing a song about "Captain Cully and His Band of Free Men."
- Arc Words: "The Last."
- The Archmage: Mabruk, King Haggard's court magician, is a master sorcerer. When Haggard replaces him with Schmendrick, Mabruk tries to attack his former employer with powerful magic, only for Amalthea to step between them and cancel his spell. Recognizing what she truly is, Mabruk leaves laughing, telling Haggard that he has let his doom in through the front door.
- Beta Couple: Schmendrick and Molly. They don't get together until the very end, but unlike Lír and Amalthea, they get their Happily Ever After.
- Bittersweet Ending: The unicorn saves her people at the cost of the happy human life she could have known, as well as having to live an eternal, immortal life with the pain of regret. However, she also knows what human love is like, and it's implied that Lír will have some share in her immortality, since she will remember him.
- Bizarrchitecture: The lower levels of Haggard's castle have grotesque faces randomly protruding from the rock.
- Bowdlerise: The 25th anniversary DVD edit out a few well-placed "damn"s, sometimes rather sloppily. Oddly, the bare-breasted Harpy is left completely alone. The Enchanted Edition, from Shout Factory, restores these damns.
- Celebrity Endorsement: Folk rock band America provides the soundtrack for the film. Jimmy Webb wrote the songs.
- Counterpoint Duet: "Now That I'm a Woman"/"That's All I've Got to Say" - Amalthea's mixed feelings about being human and Lír's song about failed attempts to court her. Becomes a love duet at the end.
- Creative Closing Credits: The opening of the movie is drawn to resemble a series of medieval tapestries come to life (and a few images from the Book of Hours)—specifically, the Unicorn Tapestries.
- Creepy Crows: Mommy Fortuna kept one as a pet. After her death, it followed the unicorn and Schmendrick to Haggard's castle, and returns with the Unicorn to live in her forest at the end of the movie.
- Daydream Believer: Molly and all of Captain Cully's crew believe there really is a Robin Hood. Molly also believes there are unicorns. (She's right, obviously.)
- Demoted to Extra: The film only mentions Haggard's four men-at-arms. They have a larger role in the book.
- Empathic Environment: According to Schmendrick, when Haggard built his castle, the verdant land became barren and hardscrabble. Indeed, when Haggard dies, the land seems to be healing (it doesn't hurt that it was trampled over by hundreds of life-giving unicorns.)
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Implied with King Haggard in regards to Prince Lir. Lir is his adopted son, not his biological one, and Haggard admits he only adopted the boy in order to see if being a parent could rouse him to happiness. Given how miserable King Haggard is in the present, the notion clearly didn't work well enough. Regardless, Haggard still raises Lir well into adulthood and proclaims in his introductory speech he will suffer the presence of nobody who doesn't make him happy—while his son is standing just a few feet away from him.
- Falling-in-Love Montage: Amalthea and Lír in "That's All I've Got To Say".
- Foreshadowing: The unicorn is captured by Mommy Fortuna, who knows that she's courting her own death and is fine with the idea, because an immortal being will forever know she held them. Haggard captured almost all the unicorns, and knows Amalthea is his doom, and doesn't care. His last words are "I KNEW YOU WERE THE LAST!"
- Freeze-Frame Bonus: When the Unicorn glances back at her forest a final time before leaving, there are a couple of dodo birds among the animals watching her go.
- Throughout the film, if you pay close attention you'll notice Mommy Fortuna's crow left her after her death and is slowly accompanying our heroes throughout their adventures. We see him in Haggard's castle and at the end, entering into the unicorn's forest.
- Functional Genre Savvy: Several characters, particularly Lír, who makes a much-quoted speech (see below) about the proper order of things during the climax of the story.
- Generic Cuteness: Averted. Nobody looks good except Lír and Amalthea, although Molly perhaps looks younger than she should.
- Genre Deconstruction: All of the characters know they're in a fairy tale, and the fairy tale itself mocks, parodies, subverts and plays straight Fairy Tale tropes. One of the most moving scenes comes from this exchange:Schmendrick: Then let the quest end here! I don't think I could change her back even if you wished it! Marry the prince and live happily ever after.
Amalthea: Yes! That is my wish!
Lír: No. Lady, I am a hero, and heroes know that things must happen when it is time for them to happen. A quest may not simply be abandoned. Unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.
Molly Grue: (quietly to Schmendrick) But what if there isn't a happy ending at all?
Schmendrick: (quietly) There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.
- Godiva Hair: This plus her considerably paleness protect the unicorn's modesty when she is human.
- Good Is Not Nice: Unicorns may be incorruptible, but they're also wild.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Being a G-rated film, we don't actually Mommy Fortuna or Rukh die at the Harpy's claws, but we hear plenty (and Nothing Is Scarier).
- We also don't really see Lír being struck and killed by the Red Bull.
- Gossip Evolution: When the unicorn asks Schmendrick to tell what he knows of Haggard and the Red Bull, he replies that he's heard too many stories to know what's really going on. "Some say the Bull is real, the Bull is a ghost, the Bull protects Haggard or else it keeps him a prisoner in his own castle..."
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Mabruk, King Haggard, Mommy Fortuna, and Rukh are all extremely quick to take offense, and enjoy bullying and intimidating others.
- Herald: If not the two hunters at the beginning, the Butterfly, who tells the unicorn that all the others have been pursued by the Red Bull.
- The Hero's Journey: The story is all the unicorn going on a quest to know whatever happened to her people.
- "I Am Becoming" Song: 'Now That I'm a Woman.'
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Unicorns, Molly, and Lír.
- Invisible to Normals: Unicorns look like white horses to people who don't believe in them.
- Mommy Fortuna has a carnival of supposed magical creatures that are really ordinary animals bewitched with illusions (for example an old lion appears as a Manticore to the people). When Mommy Fortuna catches a real mythical creature (the Unicorn), she must put a fake horn on her to make them believe she's a real unicorn.
- Also Mommy Fortuna's powers are only to imprison the creatures and create illusions, as her servant Schmendrick reveals when he says "she can't turn cream into butter." Schmendrick is the one who turns out to be able to transform creatures into other forms, as seen when he turns the unicorn into a human woman.
- Jumped at the Call: Both Schmendrick and Molly are willing to travel with the unicorn within hours of meeting her.
- Karmic Death: Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard.
- The Last Title: The film is about the last unicorn.
- Magic Enhancement: The unicorn buffs Schmendrick's magic when he casts an illusion of Robin Hood.
- Marshmallow Hell: When Schmendrick accidentally converts the tree he's tied to into a sapient entity, he finds himself in this.Schmendrick: Oh, God. I'm engaged to a Douglas Fir. HELP!!! UNICORN, WHERE ARE YOU?!
Unicorn: [approaches as a mystical storm brews]
Tree: Oh! Galls and fireblight! She shall never have you, that hussy! We will perish together!
- MayflyDecember Romance: Prince Lír and the unicorn as Lady Amalthea. They could live a mortal life together as humans, but that becomes impossible when she turns back into a unicorn, making her both immortal and unable to love him.
- Meaningful Name: Several.
- The unicorn's alias, "Amalthea," is a reference to the nanny goat who nursed Zeus. The original Amalthea had lost a horn, which became the Cornucopia, effectively making her a unicorn.
- "Haggard" pretty much speaks for itself.
- "Schmendrick" is a Yiddish word meaning someone who is foolish, clueless, or hopelessly out of his depth: a boy sent to do a man's job.
- The Harpy is named "Celaeno," after one of the three classic harpies, because she is the dark and twisted yang to the Unicorn's light and pure yin.
- "Lír" is an Irish name which means "the sea".
- Medium Awareness: Far less so than in the book, but the characters hint they know they're in a fairy tale.
- Mood Whiplash: After Mabruck dramatically tries to take revenge on Haggard for releasing him, and being AntiMagicked by Amalthea, Lír sighs and promises to write him a good reference.
- Multiboobage: As if having saggy human breasts on a vulture's body wasn't enough to make Celaeno look creepy, she's got three of them.
- Not So Different:
- Mommy Fortuna and Haggard, it turns out.
- Celaeno invokes this on the Unicorn, calling them "sisters". The Unicorn doesn't disagree.
- Placebo Effect: Schmendrick tricks the skull by pretending to turn a flask of water into wine and then drinking it. When the skull demands to be given some, Schmendrick objects that the skull can't smell or taste wine, to which the skull responds that it remembers the smell and taste of wine. Schmendrick hands the empty flask to the skull, and it proceeds to "drink" from it and act intoxicated.
- The Power of Love: Turns Lír from a lazy coward into a Genre Savvy hero, and allows the Unicorn to face her greatest fear.
- Prophecy Twist: The mysterious riddle the cat gives Molly to unravel the way to the Red Bull's lair turns out to be rather literal, and mostly irrelevant: Schmendrick just drinks the water while pretending to turn it into wine and, as the skull itself says, the clock is "just numbers and gears, pay it no mind"; all that really matters is using the "wine" to get the skull to tell them of the passage through the clock.
- Quest for the Rest
- Reduced to Ratburgers: The bandits complain that Molly keeps serving them rat soup. "At least she could use a different rat! The third night, anyway!"
- Relatively Flimsy Excuse: As noted above, Schmendrick says that the "Lady Amalthea" is his niece when he meets King Haggard. They don't really buy it, but they don't ask any more questions.
- Rewatch Bonus: The butterfly tells the Unicorn the whole plot, but since he Speaks in Shout-Outs, it requires a second viewing. ("The king is in his counting house! Counting house! Counting!" = King Haggard counts his precious unicorns.)
- Ridiculously Cute Critter: The unicorn herself and all her forest companions.
- Robin Hood: Summoned by Schmendrick's magic to show his power to Captain Cully, a "real life" Robin Hood in the story.
- Run or Die: Subverted. The unicorn explains that running from anything immortal only attracts their attention. Not that this stops her from bolting in a panic when she meets the Red Bull, though it could be justified by the fact that the Bull's attention is already fixed on her, and he is actively chasing her.
- Sexual Karma: The talking tree and her "attributes".
- Shout-Out: When Rukh shows up in the middle of Schmendrick releasing the unicorn, he reveals what riddle Schmendrick told him to stump him: "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Amalthea and Lír. She eventually reciprocates his feelings, but since she's a unicorn, she can't stay with him or even love him anymore after returning to her true form. She can only live with the regret of not staying with him forever.
- Status Buff: Done in one instance by the unicorn to Schmendrick, when he successfully summons an illusion of Robin Hood and his allies.
- Stock Sound Effects: The dragon Lír slays has Godzilla's roar — though this is removed in some versions of the film — and the Red Bull sounds like Gamera.
- Strange Secret Entrance: Although the skull claims the clock "is just numbers and gears, pay it no mind", the fact is that the way to the Red Bull's lair in the caverns beneath Haggard's castle is to "walk right through it". It is clearly a physical object (Haggard is able to attack and topple it with his sword), but when the heroes do as the skull says, they do indeed pass right through magical mists into the tunnel on the other side, and these disappear when the clock is destroyed. Like the Red Bull itself (or the skull for that matter), it's never explained how Haggard has such magic (other than, it's implied, via Mabruk).
- Sweetie Graffiti: When it opens up to Captain Cully's campfire, you can see a tree with the words CC + MG carved inside a heart.
- The Fair Folk: Magical creatures in general seem to behave like this. In addition to their magical qualities, they all follow Blue-and-Orange Morality to a degree and even benevolent ones like the Unicorn fall into Good Is Not Nice.
- There Is Another: Schmendrick and Lady Amalthea discover that there are other unicorns, but they are all captives of King Haggard. The story then becomes about trying to rescue them.
- Tongue Twister: "And be wary of wousing a wizard's wath! Rousing a rizard's... Be wary of making a magician angry!"
- Took a Level in Badass:
- Schmendrick, who goes from being a mere medium of magic to being able to command it at will.
- Lír starts off as a lazy schmuck, but eventually fights the Red Bull, lays down his life to save the unicorn, and becomes King.
- The unicorn, who goes from terrified, fleeing prey animal to the one who drives the Red Bull into the sea.
- Unusual Euphemism:Molly Grue: Slit his wizard!
- The book explains that she meant either "gizzard" or "weasand" (an archaic term for the throat), and amalgamated the two.
- The Walls Are Closing In: Schmendrick's second botched attempt to free the Unicorn from the wheeled carnival cage by magic causes it to shrink around her. He's hard put to halt the spell before it can crush her, leaving her confined in a cage too small to stand up in.
- Weirdness Magnet: Unicorn gives Schemendrick advice on how not to be one.Unicorn: (firmly) Don't Look Back. And don't run. You must never run from anything immortal — it attracts their attention.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Four men-at-arms are mentioned (very minor characters in the book), but they never make an appearance.
- Wild Wilderness
- Who Wants to Live Forever?:
- A major theme in the story is that immortal beings cannot appreciate mortality.
- Mommy Fortuna had a twisted view of immortality in regards to the Harpy:Fortuna: Oh, she'll kill me one day or another. But she will remember forever that I caught her; that I held her prisoner. So there's my immortality, eh?
- Also Schmendrick comments at the end that Lír will achieve immortality through the unicorn's memory of loving him.
- There's also the immortality of stories and fairy tales and how they live forever since we know often how they develop.
- You Can See Me?:
Haggard: I know you! I nearly knew you as soon as I saw you on the road, coming to my door. Since then, there is no movement of yours that has not betrayed you! A pace, a glance, a turn of the head, the flash of your throat as you breathe; even your way of standing perfectly still — they were all my spies!
- Most ordinary people mistake the unicorn for a white horse, and Mommy Fortuna has to put a fake horn on the unicorn to exhibit her to the public. Mommy Fortuna, Schmendricknote , Molly, and (terrifyingly) the Red Bull all know the unicorn when they encounter her. The cat is also able to see her, because "No cat out of its first fur can ever be deceived by appearances. Unlike humans, who seem to enjoy it." Haggard isn't sure at first, but he's spent enough time staring at unicorns that he quickly begins to suspect who Amalthea really is.
- King Haggard launches into a furious tirade when he reveals to Amalthea that he knows she's a unicorn in disguise.
- It's implied animals can clearly see the Unicorn for who she is, too.
- You Can Talk?: Molly is only mildly surprised when the cat speaks ("Oh! You can talk!"), in more of a "why are you speaking now" rather than "Oh my God! A talking cat!" This is probably due to the general Medium Awareness in the film. Neither she nor Schmendrick are particularly surprised or creeped out by the talking skeleton, but in that case it's probably because the cat warned them about it earlier.
- To be fair, even if you remove the Medium Awareness, this is a world of wizards, unicorns, and demonic creatures (the Harpy and the Red Bull). A talking cat is just par for the course.