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Unicorn Wars drags adorable animated critters through unfathomable horrors

Birdboy director Alberto Vázquez returns to traumatize a whole new audience

A bloated, wild-eyed blue teddy bear devours the pastel guts of a rainbow-colored caterpillar in a hallucination sequence from the animated feature Unicorn Wars Image: GKIDS

This review was published in conjunction with the movie’s showing at the 2022 Fantastic Fest. See below for release information.

Maybe every generation needs its own devastating animated movie about the horrors of war. That’s one way to explain Unicorn Wars, 2022’s gory, gutting answer to films like When the Wind Blows or Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. The latest from Spanish writer-director Alberto Vázquez is transgressive and aggressive to a degree that’s hard to fathom: It weaponizes cute cartoon creatures against its audience, and introduces innocence and beauty in order to tear it apart on screen in the most horrific ways possible. The film isn’t an easy watch, but it is a bold and memorable one.

Vázquez’s follow-up to 2015’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children lays out a long-standing feud between unicorns and teddy bears. That sounds like a narrative that would emerge from a macabre kid bashing their stuffed animals into each other, but Vázquez’s version of the story is hyperbolically adult-oriented. The bears — pastel-colored, soft-looking critters with huge heads and eyes and high, squeaky voices — are petty, cruel, and doctrinaire about their prejudices. Their hatred for unicorns stems from an openly Bible-like holy text that tells them bears once lived joyously in a sacred forest, until they “found God’s house” (a literal house in the woods) and ascended above all other animals.

Then, the book says, unicorns became jealous of the bears’ grace and started a war that drove them out of the forest. Now, the bears’ descendants live in a perpetual military state, endlessly training fresh recruits and planning the next offensive into the forest. Which leads to the central action, where two brother bears, Tubby and Bluey, form part of a squad taking a grim trek into the forest to look for a lost scouting group.

The front gate of the bears’ military camp in the animated feature Unicorn Wars, with two gruff-looking bear guards, razor wire, and several “no unicorn” signs Image: GKIDS

From the start, Vázquez emphasizes how unsuited the bears are for war — they’re fearful, soft creatures who’d rather be hugging and petting each other (or themselves) than carrying rifles and grenades. Their training camp is called Camp Love; its motto is “Honor, Pain, Cuddles.” They’re trained in archery with adorable little Cupid bows that shoot heart-tipped arrows. They look more like swollen Care Bears than like the grizzly-esque ancestors seen in the art of their sacred book.

But they’re also absolute bastards who take every opportunity to hurt and abuse each other, with Bluey as the ringleader who sets up his brother Tubby for humiliation at every turn. Bluey isn’t just mean, he’s outright sadistic. The story starts out as just an oddball “adorable critters do unadorable things” narrative: Vázquez pointedly tweaks the audience with a close-up of one teddy’s diminutive genitals as he dries off post-shower. Later, another bear who’s pissing in the forest accuses Tubby of staring at his junk, then tries to turn the moment into a sexual encounter. But as the story expands and deepens past its first minor, naughty provocations, the Bluey-Tubby conflict keeps opening up into something darker, uglier, and older, stretching back even before their birth.

Vázquez has a talent for scripting characters who tear at his audience’s heartstrings. He’s drawing in extremely broad strokes here, with the unicorns symbolizing the natural world, and the bears as a bitterly drawn portrait of the military-industrial complex and the way it indoctrinates and cynically consumes victims, for reasons that have nothing to do with the wars it claims it’s fighting. Capital-G Good and Capital-E Evil stretch throughout the film, and it’s never hard to tell them apart.

But even within that black-and-white ethos, it’s possible to feel a little sympathy for some of the characters perpetuating the worst horrors, because they were clearly born into a system where they never had a chance to walk away undamaged. Their leadership is too controlling, their culture too openly built on perpetuating war. There’s a real pathos in the way Vázquez shapes this world to empower all of Bluey’s worst tendencies, to crush all of Tubby’s best ones, and to set both of them up in an inescapable conflict. The unicorns are drawn with far less nuance and detail, but they similarly are carried along by a system that crushes innocence and consumes the unwary.

A pink bear, panda bear, brown bear, blue bear, and yellow bear all wearing hot pink military uniforms fire arrows with heart-shaped tips in Unicorn Wars

All that said, Unicorn Wars heads into areas so ugly and unsparingly grotesque that it’s likely to challenge the stamina of all but the most cult-movie-loving gorehounds. An audience hungry for more animated films in the vein of Heavy Metal or the recent follower The Spine of Night might be entirely on board for the spectacle of Care Bears being traumatized by an endless series of graphic murders, suicides, eviscerations, and mutilations, down to an impressively detailed shot of a rotting teddy bear with maggots squirming in one empty eye socket. It’s a lot to stomach, but apart from the cute-animal element, it’s a familiar kind of graphic grindhouse horror.

But Vázquez’s utter dedication to building beautiful environments and burning them down, or setting up vulnerable characters and ripping them apart, gets enervating over the course of the film. There’s no catharsis or promise of relief anywhere in the movie. Every scrap of hope or light is ruthlessly extinguished as the movie careens toward a stunningly savage conclusion.

The profound hopelessness of Unicorn Wars has purpose: It’s a vicious, misanthropic look at war and the unsparing political forces behind it, particularly the people who see conflict as a means of perpetuating control. Like Vázquez’s similarly metaphorical, similarly grim Birdboy, Unicorn Wars feels rage-driven and sad at the same time, a cri de coeur against fascism, militarism, authoritarianism, and religion, especially the kind of religion used as a tool to enable the rest.

But Birdboy at least offered a hint of possibility for escape or hope, and Unicorn Wars has none. It winds up feeling like a statement of despair and nihilism, a shock-value slap in the face wrapped in a colorful candy-coated shell. Audiences who mistake Unicorn Wars for a potentially playful transgression, a Fritz the Cat-style strike against the “cartoons are for kids” mentality, should go in braced for something that hits even harder, and a lot more accurately. Unicorn Wars is about the devastation war brings, and Vázquez makes damn sure it’s an appropriately devastating experience.

Unicorn Wars opens in Spain Oct. 21. GKIDS has acquired Unicorn Wars for American release in 2023.

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