Unicorn Wars review: a cartoon anti-war epic that goes beyond horror

Unicorn Wars review: a cartoon anti-war epic that goes beyond horror

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

Perhaps every generation needs its own devastating animated film about the horrors of war. That’s one way to explain it Unicorn Wars2022’s gory, humiliating answer to movies 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 is hard to fathom: arming cute cartoon creatures against its audience, introducing innocence and beauty to tear it apart on screen in the most gruesome ways. The film is not an easy watch, but it is a bold and memorable one.

Vázquez’s sequel to 2015 Birdboy: The Forgotten Children explains a long-standing feud between unicorns and teddy bears. That sounds like a story that would emerge from a macabre child beating up their stuffed animals, but Vázquez’s version of the story is hyperbolically aimed at adults. The bears – pastel-colored, soft-looking critters with huge heads and eyes and high-pitched, squeaky voices – are petty, cruel and doctrinaire about their prejudices. Their hatred of unicorns stems from an overtly biblical scripture that tells them that bears once lived joyfully in a sacred forest, until they “found God’s house” (a literal home in the forest) and rose 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 new recruits and planning the next offensive in the forest. Which leads to the pivotal action, where two brother bears, Tubby and Bluey, are part of a team that embarks on a grim trek through the woods to search for a lost scout group.

Image: GKIDS

From the outset, Vázquez emphasizes how unfit the bears are for war—they are fearful, gentle creatures who would rather cuddle and pet each other (or themselves) than carry guns and grenades. Their training camp is called Camp Love; the motto is “Honor, pain, hugs.” They are trained in archery with cute little Cupid bows that shoot hearty arrows. They look more like swollen Care Bears than the grizzly-like ancestors featured in their sacred book art.

But they’re also absolute bastards who take every opportunity to hurt and abuse each other, with Bluey as the leader having his brother Tubby humiliate at every turn. Not only is Bluey mean, he’s downright sadistic. The story begins as a strange duck in the bite of ‘cute critters do unpleasant things’: Vázquez emphatically adapts the audience with a close-up of a teddy bear’s small genitals as he dries off after a shower. Later, another bear peeing in the woods accuses Tubby of staring at his pack, then tries to turn the moment into a sexual encounter. But as the story expands and gets deeper than the initial minor, mischievous provocations, the Bluey-Tubby conflict continues to unfold into something darker, uglier, and older, stretching even before their birth.

Vázquez has a knack for scripting characters that tear his audience apart. Here he draws in extremely broad strokes, 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 unrelated to the wars. make it claim it fights. 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 who sustain the worst horrors, as they were clearly born into a system where they never had a chance to get away unscathed. to walk. Their leadership is too controlling, their culture is too openly built on perpetuating war. There’s real pathos in the way Vázquez is shaping this world to harness all of Bluey’s worst tendencies, crush all of Tubby’s best, and throw them both into inescapable conflict. The unicorns are drawn with much less nuance and detail, but they are similarly worn 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 shoot arrows with heart-shaped tips in Unicorn Wars

That all said, Unicorn Wars goes into areas so ugly and unforgivingly grotesque that it probably puts the stamina of all but the most cult-movie-loving gorehounds to the test. An audience hungry for more animated films along the lines of heavy metal or the recent follower The backbone of the night could be all aboard for the spectacle of Care Bears traumatized by an endless series of graphic murders, suicides, dismemberments and mutilations, to an impressively detailed shot of a rotting teddy bear with maggots writhing in an empty eye socket. It’s a lot to digest, but aside from the cute animal element, it’s a familiar kind of graphic grindhouse horror.

But Vázquez’s utmost dedication to building beautiful environments and burning them down, or setting up and taking apart vulnerable characters, becomes daunting as the film progresses. Nowhere in the film is there any catharsis or promise of relief. Any glimmer of hope or light is relentlessly extinguished as the film heads for a stunningly savage conclusion.

The deep hopelessness of Unicorn Wars has a purpose: it’s a cruel, misanthropic view of war and the ruthless political forces behind it, especially those who see conflict as a means of perpetuating control. Like Vázquez’ equally metaphorical, equally grim bird boy, Unicorn Wars feels furious and sad at the same time, a cri de coeur against fascism, militarism, authoritarianism and religion, especially the kind of religion that is used as a tool to make the rest possible.

But bird boy offered at least a hint of escape or hope, and Unicorn Wars has none. It ultimately feels like a statement of despair and nihilism, a shock-value slap in the face wrapped in a colorful candy-covered shell. Audience that is mistaken Unicorn Wars for a possible playful violation, a Fritz the cat-style strike against the “cartoons are for kids” mentality should go for something even harder and much more accurate. Unicorn Wars deals with the devastation that war brings, and Vázquez makes sure it’s quite a devastating experience.

Unicorn Wars opens in Spain October 21. GKIDS has taken over Unicorn Wars for US release in 2023.

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