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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, he finally got paid.
- 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.
- 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: Arguably the main power of the Unicorn, which it used several times during the story, in order to destroy magical locks, turn back an enchanted tree to normal, and prevent the use of magic against her.
- Anti-Villain: King Haggard, as shown in this scene where he explains why he captured the unicorns. Not from greed, or power... but because they're the only thing that makes him happy.
- Barbie Doll Anatomy: Amalthea, although the Godiva Hair might contribute a bit.
- Becoming the Mask: The danger of the unicorn's human guise.
- Berserk Button: For the unicorn, the death of Prince Lír by the Red Bull.
- Beta Couple: Schmendrick and Molly.
- Alternately, Lir and Amalthea could be seen as a Beta Couple to Schmendrick and Molly, as they get together sooner and easier, whereas the latter pair doesn't realize they're in love until the very end.
- Bittersweet Ending: The unicorn saves her people, at the cost of the happy human life she could have known.
- Born as an Adult: Amalthea.
- Blue Eyes: Lír. Lady Amalthea has dark blue eyes that border on purple.
- Bowdlerize: The 25th anniversary DVD edit out a few well-placed "damn"s, sometimes rather sloppily. Oddly, the bare-breasted Harpy is left completely alone.
- Broken Angel: Played straight immediately after the transformation, then gradually deconstructed.
- By the Eyes of the Blind:
Skull: Oh, no. No, you don't. Not that one. Unicorn! Unicorn! Haggard! Haggard! UNICORN! UNICORN! Haggard, where are you? There they go! Down to the Red Bull! The clock, Haggard! There they go! Unicorn! UNICORN!
- Calling The Unicorn Out: "Where have you been?!"
- Cats Are Mean: Well, not entirely, but the kitchen cat at Haggard's castle is a Trickster, and could give more help than he does.
Cat: No cat out of her first fur has ever given a straight answer to anyone. (removes the eye patch to wink at Molly with an undamaged, working eye.)
- Celebrity Endorsement: Folk rock band America provides the soundtrack for the film.
- Cloudcuckoolander: The butterfly sings songs, recites poetry, quotes a warning from a matchbox at one point, and occasionally says something useful. It's at least implied, if not stated outright, that verbatim parroting what he's heard others say before is actually the only way any butterfly can talk at all. He seems to understand what the unicorn is after well enough, though.
- 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 Opening 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.
- Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass/Took a Level In Badass:
- Schmendrick's magic only works on occasion, and when it does, something usually goes wrong with it. But by the end of the book, he is able to return the unicorn to her true form.
- 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 Cuckoolander Was Right: The butterfly has some good advice hidden in his string of nonsense songs.
- 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.)
- Deconstruction. And how. 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.
- Dem Bones: The guardian of the passageway that leads to the Red Bull.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Molly Grue goes barefoot.
- Emergency Transformation: Schmendrick to the unicorn when she is in trouble. He is eventually able to pull off an Emergency Re-Transformation.
- Emotionless Girl: Lady Amalthea, initially.
- Famous Last Words:
- "The last! I knew you were the last!"
- Mommy Fortuna's "You couldn't have freed yourself alone! I held you!" Mommy Fortuna is clearly akin to those people who keep venomous snakes as pets.
- Feathered Fiend: The Harpy
- Fisher King: King Haggard's kingdom.
- Functional Magic: Wild magic, exclusively. Mostly because Schmendrick sucks majorly at wizarding, though.
- Generic Cuteness: Averted. Nobody looks good except Lír and Amalthea. Still, Molly looks a lot younger than she ought to.
- Genre Savvy: Several characters, particularly Lír, who makes a much-quoted speech about the proper order of things during the climax of the story.
- Glowing Eyelights of Un-Death: The skull, during the "HAGGARD! HAGGARD!! UNICORN!" tirade.
- Good Is Not Nice: Unicorns may be incorruptible, but they're also wild.
- Harping on About Harpies
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Mabruk, King Haggard, Mommy Fortuna, and Rukh are all extremely quick to take offence, and enjoy bullying and intimidating others.
- Hannibal Lecture. King Haggard.
Haggard: "I know you! I almost 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!"
- Heroic Sacrifice: That would be Lír. He gets better.
- The Hero's Journey
- Humanity Ensues: The unicorn is transformed by Schmendrick into a human woman, against her will.
- Humanity Is Infectious: Amalthea eventually gains enough to the point where she "dies" when Schmendrick changes the unicorn back.
- "I Am Becoming" Song: 'Now That I'm a Woman.'
- I Just Want To Stay Normal: Amalthea begs Schmendrick not to change her back into a unicorn.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Unicorns, Molly, and Lír.
- It Must Be Mine: Haggard and "his" unicorns.
Haggard: They are MINE! They belong to ME! The Red Bull gathered them one-by-one, and I bade him 'drive each one into the sea!' I like to watch them. They fill me with joy. The first time I felt it, I thought I was going to die. I said to the Red Bull, 'I must have them! I must have all of them, all there are! For nothing makes me happy... but their shining, and their grace.' So, the Red Bull caught them. Each time I see the unicorns--MY unicorns--it is like that morning in the woods, and I feel young, in spite of myself.
- It's All About Me: Haggard's biggest vice--and danger--is his selfishness and obsessiveness.
- Jumped At the Call: Both Schmendrick and Molly are willing to travel with the unicorn within hours of meeting her.
- Just Like Robin Hood: Captain Cully and his outlaw gang certainly aspire to be, but instead are quite the opposite. They rob the poor because they can't fight back, and pay off the rich to turn a blind eye.
- Karmic Death: Mommy Fortuna and King Haggard.
- Knight in Shining Armor: Lír.
- Last of Her Kind: But not exactly. It turns out that there are more unicorns--but they have all been imprisoned in the sea by King Haggard, with the help of the Red Bull.
- Loss of Identity: After being transformed into an human, she gradually forgets who she was, to the point she doesn't know anymore who (and what) she is.
- Love Martyr: Oh, Lír.
- Magikarp Power: Schmendrick's magic. Similarly, see also Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass.
- Marshmallow Hell: When Schmendrick accidentally converts the tree he's tied to into a living entity, he finds himself in this.
Schmendrick: Oh God. I'm engaged to a Douglas Fir.
Tree: Galls and fireblight! She shall not have you. We shall perish together!
- Mayfly-December Romance: Prince Lír and the unicorn as Lady Amalthea.
- Meaningful Name:
- 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 called "Celaeno" because she is the dark and twisted yang to the Unicorn's light and pure yin.
- The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: The unicorn's frightening personality change following her transformation.
- Motive Rant: King Haggard has one when he wistfully tells Lady Amalthea why he holds all the unicorns prisoner in the sea.
- Multi Boobage: The Harpy has not two, but three breasts.
- Naked on Arrival: Due to an aversion of Magic Pants, this is the unicorn's human form at first sight. Copious amounts of Godiva Hair were used, naturally.
- No Name Given: The unicorn. "Amalthea" is just an alias used when in human form.
- One-Scene Wonder: Numerous characters/voice actors quickly come and go, but Rene Auberjonois stands out as The Skull.
- The Power of Love: Turns Lír from a lazy coward into a Genre Savvy hero.
- Princess Classic: Amalthea, especially as her humanity becomes more evident, acts like this, and nearly became an actual princess.
- Punny Name: As well as being a Yiddish word (see above), "Schmendrick the Magician" is also a pun on "Mandrake the Magician."
- Quest for the Rest
- Rapunzel Hair: Lady Amalthea.
- The Renaissance Age of Animation
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: The Skull displays such eyes when he recognizes the eponymous character for what she truly is. See also Glowing Eyelights of Un-Death.
- 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.
- Sexual Karma: The talking tree and her "attributes".
- Screw Destiny: Just before the final encounter with the Red Bull, Lady Amalthea wants to back out, marry Lír, and live happily ever after--Lír is the one who insists that the story can't end that way.
- Status Buff: Done in one instance by the unicorn to Schmendrick, when he successfully summons an illusion of Robin Hood and his allies.
- 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.
- Talk Like a Pirate: The cat, who also sports an eyepatch and pegleg.
- 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.
- Through A Face Without Flesh: The Skull turns rosy-cheeked as it empties a bottle of "wine."
- Transformation Trauma: Turning the unicorn into a human practically lobotomizes her.
"I can feel this body dying all around me!"
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.
- What Measure Is a Non Unique
- What Happened to the Mouse? Rather, what happened to the cat? the whole castle does collapse at the end.
- If you look very closely in Schmendrick and Molly's final scene (when she's about to get on the horse after saying she will go with him), the cat is on the back of her horse.
- Four men-at-arms are mentioned (very minor characters in the book), but they never make an appearance.
- Wild Wilderness
- White-Haired Pretty Girl: Amalthea
- 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 Lir will achieve immortality through the unicorn's memory of loving him.
- The Wise Prince: Lír grows into this.
- World's Most Beautiful Woman: Not explicitly stated, but when the most beautiful creature in the world becomes human, this seems to be the result. It's worth noting however, that as she becomes more human she stays beautiful, but the mystical quality of her beauty fades away.
- You Can See Me?: Mommy Fortuna, Schmendrick, Molly, and (terrifyingly) the Red Bull all know the unicorn when they see her. 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. 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 enjoy them."