Monday, January 19, 2015

Innocence Lost, Innocence Found

Recently my wife and I watched the 1982 animated film The Last Unicorn. In one scene of the film, we are introduced to the character of Molly Grue, a hard woman aged by years of work and rough living. When she first sees the eponymous Unicorn, she immediately gets emotional, and gives the follow exclamation:
Where were you twenty years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you! How dare you come to me now, when I am this!
At the time of this writing, I haven't had the pleasure of reading Peter S. Beagle's original book, but from what I understand, Molly Grue is often described acting like a man (even spitting on the ground in one scene) and being much more rough around the edges than even how she's portrayed in the film. The point is, she is not the young girl she once was, with dreams and hopes. Life went another way for her - in fact, life went a very different way for her. She was no longer that "innocent young maid", she was now an older, rough, haggard, work woman for a group of forest bandits. When she saw the Unicorn, it suddenly reminded her of that innocent youth she had, when she believed in unicorns and expected them to come walking up to her like something out of a fantasy. When she encountered the unicorn, it was like that innocence coming back...and it reminded her of what she had become.

Over the past month, I've been reconnecting with old films from my childhood, and watching them now as an adult. On the one hand, I can appreciate them even more, because, unlike so much fluff today, they could be intelligent enough to still enjoyed by all ages. Films like The Last Unicorn, or others like The Dark Crystal, are often marketed or understood as "kid's films," and yet they offer motifs and lessons that are deep enough so that, even in the more comical moments, it's not felt as if you're talking down to children. I understood this even as a child watching The Last Unicorn - in fact, I loved it way more than my two younger sisters did (they actually hated it), and it was precisely because I recognized (like I did when I first watched The Dark Crystal) that there was so much to understand in the story that went beyond the basics. Watching these films again as an adult reminds me of what it was like to watch them for the first time as a kid - but even better.

On the other hand, when I reconnect with these gems from my youth, it reminds me of another time in my life. It reminds me of a time before I learned about depression, about despair, about lust, about want...about anything that gets into the mind of an adult and takes innocence away. It reminds me of a time when the magical elements of these films could mix with my own sense of reality, without having to pull me from it. I could take the darker moments of these films, and even some of their harsher lessons, and still walk away from it unscathed. When I watch these nostalgic pieces, I feel a warmth in my heart that so many loving memories are rekindled...but I am also reminded, like Molly Grue, of what I've become, and what I am now. I'm not the younger me. And that can be a shocking revelation.

In retrospect, however, the trials of life permit us to grow. They are part of becoming an adult. Many people still retain the negative aspects of childhood because they refuse to grow up. In The Last Unicorn, the motivations of King Haggard, the villain, come from a desire to feel young again, even though he is now an old man. By contrast, the Unicorn goes through anguish and inner turmoil in her experiences as the human Amalthea, and yet, at the end, is thankful for it all. Even in these treasured gems of my childhood, you see examples of the problems adults faced, and see characters having to deal with them and come out more mature.

Perhaps, really, that is why these films still resonate with us ten, twenty, or thirty years later on. As they age, so do we. Those deeper elements in the characters and story that we recognized as children but formerly could not register now hit home far too well. But that's what makes them so wonderful. That's why we still need them. Yes, we're Molly Grue now, and the remembrance of our former innocence may not always make us happy, but it can also cause us to reflect on our maturity, and what we have learned from it. Then we might be able to look on our former innocence and not mind. Let's remember, in that same scene I mentioned at the beginning, the Unicorn looks at Molly and says, "I'm here now." Let's keep a spark of that innocence from our past with us, and remember where we've come from, so we can better analyze where we are now.


  1. Great article. I wholeheartedly agree having watched "The Dark Crystal" again a few months back along with the classic "Watership Down" and "Plague Dogs". There are so few films like these being made today it saddens me.

    1. "The Dark Crystal" is a classic, I don't care what anyone says.

      I haven't seen "Watership Down" nor "Plague Dogs" yet, though I've been meaning to do so. I grew up with my parents owning both books, but I never read them :(

    2. Please send me names and addresses of those that disagree with "The Dark Crystal" being a classic. I have a van, plenty of rope, and know a pig farmer...

      Pro Tip: You need read both"Watership Down" and "Plague Dogs" before you can call yourself either an author or reader... ;) Shame on you!

    3. Sadly, some of those names would include members of my immediate family :P Also, never trust a pig farmer...