Watching trailers or looking at images from Alberto Vázquez’s shockingly gruesome animated fable Unicorn Wars, viewers may find themselves absently humming a long-forgotten tune: the theme to whichever Care Bears TV show they grew up with. Any resemblance between the murderous, fanatical bears of Unicorn Wars and their kid-friendly counterparts, Vázquez tells Polygon, is entirely deliberate.
“It was a series I really liked when I was little, Care Bears,” the Spanish writer-director and graphic novelist says, speaking partly through an interpreter. “I like playing with animal iconography. Anthropomorphic animals don’t belong to a specific culture or time period. They kind of belong to everyone. They’re part of everyone’s childhood.”
It’s a guarantee that no one’s childhood up until now had Care Bears quite like the ones in Unicorn Wars. While Vázquez’s characters have the rounded, cutesy bodies, big eyes, and pastel colors of characters from children’s shows, they also have visible genitals and notable sex drives, foul mouths, bad tempers, and in some cases, deep-seated psychosis. Their war-focused culture leads to many of the characters being graphically mutilated and murdered as the story unfolds, and the film ends with a profoundly shocking sequence that seems designed to challenge audiences’ endurance.
[Ed. note: This interview features end spoilers for Unicorn Wars.]
But none of this is meant just as edgelord provocation or transgression. In laying out a horrific metaphor about the root causes of war, Vázquez wanted to lean on universal imagery to make sure viewers around the world would watch the film the same way, without seeing specific nationalist intent, or a specific country’s history.
“They’re iconic — and not just the icons of Care Bears specifically,” he says. Just as with his previous animated movie, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, he wanted to use cartoon animals because every country has their own versions of that idea. “I like working with recognizable iconography. In Birdboy, it was mice and rabbits. That way, if you see this movie, you can’t really tell where it’s from — you can’t tell if it’s Spanish, American, Japanese, or French.”
The symbolism in Unicorn Wars is similarly broad and straightforward: The bears’ culture is built around a military-industrial complex focused on demonizing unicorns, and maintaining an endless war against them. The bears have a holy book that tells them their ancestors lived in the sacred forest, close to God, but the unicorns unjustly drove them out. As the movie progresses, it focuses in on two brother bears, Tubby and Bluey, who represent different sides in the war of attrition against the unicorns — and, fundamentally, against nature and the environment.
By the film’s late stages, Tubby and Bluey have each become radicalized. Bluey leads a coup against his own faction’s leaders, murdering them and taking control of the bear army. Tubby goes back to nature, living peacefully with the unicorns and immersing himself in the forest, away from civilization. But Bluey, determined to prove his superiority, leads his army into the forest and burns it, slaughtering all the unicorns in a bloody battle, murdering Tubby, and dying himself. A shapeless, devouring monster first seen in the film’s opening sequences rises up from the eviscerated corpses of unicorns and bears alike, and the collective ruin of the old world takes on a new form: what appears to be the first human.
For Vázquez, that story is about analyzing humanity’s darkest impulses, and the institutions that stoke and control those impulses in order to maintain power. “It’s a war movie, and war is very dark, and deals with the worst of human beings,” he says. “I really wanted to talk about the common origin of all wars. So while it seems like an imaginary kind of Vietnam War, to me, all wars are the same.”
The element in the movie that may feel least universal, and hardest to understand, is that shapeless, grasping, hungry monster in the forest. Vázquez explains: “The monster in the film functions as a prologue and an epilogue. It’s serving as a metaphor for what what’s coming later. The monster for me is a God without a form, a God adored as a leader, but a God that’s still yet to evolve. When the end comes, the God takes form, and the prophecy of the book of the bears is fulfilled. It’s a magical, mysterious element that’s there to reinforce the concept [of what violence does to a society].”
But ultimately, the movie is less about the monster, and more about the message — specifically, about the powermongers who benefit from wars, and the tools they use to keep themselves in power. “The bears have a very religious and militaristic culture and that controls public opinion,” Vázquez says. “Whoever controls discourse and information, controls the war. The way they speak about fanaticism — religion is a form of control. A war with ideology is much more dangerous than a war without.”
Where Birdboy ends with at least a hint of hope, Unicorn Wars rips any chance of hope or recovery away from the characters, and the world. And it’s infinitely cynical about what humanity is made of, as well. Vázquez says that’s no coincidence, either. “The movie is all playing with contrasts,” he says. “At the beginning, it feels like a humorous movie, but then it becomes a more dramatic and sad film. And by the end, it’s a horror film. I like to provoke the audience, but I also like to provoke emotion — and something impactful and shocking provokes emotion.”
Again, though, he sees the end of Unicorn Wars and its nihilistic message as realistic, not as transgression for its own sake. “I want to be very radical with the message in my stories,” he explains. “I don’t want to sugarcoat anything. It’s a very bellicose and violent film, and I think the ending is appropriate for the theme. It might be uncomfortable for certain audiences, but I like when an audience feels uncomfortable. I want them to feel moved. I like movies where even if they’re not perfect, they leave a memory behind.”
Unicorn Wars is now playing in select theaters — see the movie’s website for details — and is available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital platforms.