Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Last Unicorn

"And 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?"

The Last Unicorn was not so vivid in my memory as Robin Hood. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of it before, let alone seen it. But there was something vaguely resonant about the title and DVD cover art, and as I read the synopsis, I felt certain that this was the very movie I had been searching for for years.

It was back when I was a kindergartener. At my elementary school, I remember, at the end of the last Friday of every month, all the kindergarteners would gather into one classroom to watch a movie (usually a Disney animated classic—Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, etc.).

To be honest, I didn’t really like “movie day,” mainly on account of the fact that it was always hosted in the other kindergarten class, where I would have to sit on the floor and be surrounded by strange kids I didn’t normally see. Looking back, I also wonder why we even had a movie day. What educational value was there to be had from watching Disney movies during class time? As heavily criticized as California’s under-budgeted education system is nowadays, I suppose it’s easy to be cynical in retrospect and imagine that the underpaid teachers were just idling the day away any way they could.

But, no, I really did like my kindergarten teacher, and though I can’t remember much of the day-to-day in her class, everything I can remember tells me that she had the students’ best interests at heart. It is neither easy nor profitable being a teacher, especially for the very young kids. I have to believe that anyone who would take on that job would do so from the heart (though that speaks unfortunately little of their qualifications). And maybe, for us young kids, movie time existed for the same reason as nap time—we could only handle so much and needed periods to unwind.

But I’ve no expertise to comment on such matters of education, and, anyway, I digress. The Last Unicorn was not even screened on movie day, but rather came presumably from our teacher’s personal collection. Near the end of the school year, she would end every day by playing a bit of the movie. I don’t remember her introducing it in any way or even discussing it at all. When the work was done for the day, she would just turn the lights down, pop in the tape, and have us watch quietly until the bell rang.

Trying to sort through the memories now, it’s hard to make sense of the math. I feel like we must have watched The Last Unicorn for at least a week, but, in that case, we must have only been watching for a few minutes at a time, because it was not a very long movie after all. Yet each viewing must have been long enough for me to become quite engrossed, as I definitely recall being the case. But what I mainly remember is that the school year ended before we could finish the movie (and, yes, we were still watching it up to the final bell of the final class day).

I was, at the time, still quite new to this “school” thing, so I didn’t really appreciate what “summer break” meant, even though my older brother seemed very excited for it. I gathered quickly enough that it was a long break from school. But, to be honest, through that whole enjoyable summer, there was a small part of me that was still anxious to find out how The Last Unicorn was going to end, and, in my naivete, I actually believed that, once school started up again, we would pick up right where we left off. Once first grade did start, it did not take me long to realize how stupid I’d been to think that I’d be resuming The Last Unicorn with a different class and different teacher. But I was still a tad disappointed.

For years after that, I continued to wonder how the movie was supposed to end. I might have just asked my parents to buy the movie for me, except that I actually couldn't remember the title of it. And in those pre-Internet days, it was not easy to look up and identify a movie based on some recollected description. Over time, I would forget almost entirely what the movie itself was about. I would only remember, now and again, that there was some animated fantasy movie that I had watched in kindergarten, which I did not get to see the end of.

I might have asked my kindergarten teacher, except that she left the school after my year. I was told that she had moved away with her husband, who was nothing less than a Harlem Globetrotter. I knew that athletes had to do a lot of traveling, so I supposed that she also had to move around a lot to be with him. Only much later in life did I do some digging and find out that her husband was actually David “Smokey” Gaines, a former Globetrotter, who was already long past his performing days by the time I was in his wife’s kindergarten class. He had become a basketball coach, and he had received an offer in another state, so that was why they had moved.

To be honest, I actually managed to track down Mr. Gaines’s current office, and I almost considered giving him a call just to ask how his wife was now. Of course, I didn’t know if they were still married, or if she was even still alive . . . . But, even in the best-case scenario, I seriously doubt she would remember me, just as I can no longer remember much about her. And what would I even say to her?

Hello, Mrs. Gaines, I was in your kindergarten class some twenty years ago. Chinese kid. Kind of quiet. You asked me once how I would feel about being selected for a “good citizenship” award, and I told you to “let me think about it.” You laughed and said okay, but later you gave me the award anyway without ever asking for my answer. Thank you for that. And how are you these days?

Yeah, it probably wouldn’t go down like that . . . .

Anyway, I digress again.

As for the movie itself? Well, I actually bought the DVD about three years ago, but, even though I'd already waited twenty years to see the end of it, I kept putting off watching it until yesterday. Or maybe, precisely because it had been that long, I was afraid to watch it, for fear that it could not possibly live up to my childhood feelings about it, those feelings being about all that I could remember, in lieu of any details about the movie itself.

Well, now having seen the whole thing finally, I don't think it's a particularly great movie, worthy of all that I've invested in it over these more than twenty years. But there is a certain haunting beauty and an earnestness to it that is seldom found nowadays in children's pictures. I would say that the filmmakers grasped rightly that a child can more deeply feel than think. Truly, there is little of sense to the movie, but the characters' ever guileless (and seemingly always unprovoked) expressions of love, longing, frustration, sadness, and dread would have been keenly resonant to younger audiences, children being all emotion before reason. Or perhaps I speak only of my own younger self.

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