GoCritic! Review: Unicorn Wars
- With his second feature-length film, Galician filmmaker Alberto Vázquez delivers a work which might look like a film for children, but which certainly isn’t suitable for them
This year’s animated film festival circuit has been enriched by the answer to a question which we doubt anyone has ever asked: what would Disney's Gummi Bears look like if they were made in the style of the MTV-affiliated Happy Tree Friends? And the resulting film, Unicorn Wars [+see also:
film profile], by Alberto Vázquez, is polarizing, to say the least.
One might argue that the film's themes are too provocative for certain audience members, but the director has ensured his work is charming at first sight. The story takes place in the woods, with a wide variety of animals. The characters and setting are neatly drawn, and the colours are predominantly rich: an orderly setting for a war. The story centres on a conflict between bears and unicorns. We encounter the squad and recruits of a teddy bear army which has been fighting unicorns for generations. It seems that some of the soldiers don’t immediately understand why the fight is necessary, but it has been stylized into a holy war aimed at protecting them from an existential threat.
If it’s more parallels with (contemporary) history that viewers are looking for, Unicorn Wars certainly delivers: the teddy bear army has its own freemason-style symbolism, a motto ("Honour, pain and cuddles"), a mantra ("Good unicorn, dead unicorn") and a mythology (he who drinks the blood of the last unicorn will be the chosen one, bringing back the paradise lost). Given that their ideological pillar is a book, religion acts as an essential ally, and since one race is blamed for the suffering of the supposed majority, comparisons to either fascist regimes or Christianity – and therefore antisemitism and crusaders - cannot be avoided. But the comparisons don’t end there. The main plot, revolving around an expedition into the woods, seems to be an allegory of Vietnam: the jungle, a seemingly invisible enemy, corpses everywhere, psychedelic drugs and neurotic, disposable heroes.
The latter encompass a range of personalities, from daredevil to insecure and chubby to athletic. The main protagonists are two brothers with a relationship recalling some of the dynamics depicted in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. One is a wannabe elite soldier, the other too chubby and awkward to succeed in the army, and their relationship is openly supportive yet not without subliminal misunderstandings or even hate. We not only follow them in training and in battle, we also get to know their backstory by way of flashbacks and nightmares, learning how family matters have influenced their character traits.
By showing us how wars can highlight envy, entitlement and bad tempers, for example, Vázquez has created an anti-war film posing quintessential subliminal questions. Are we all just a mashup of good and bad, with coincidental triggers deciding which side dominates? Can generalised solidarity and humanity prevail against war hysteria under the auspices of a strong leader? Is a perceived enemy really the personification of pure evil, or just a victim defending themselves when attacked? Who ultimately decides what is evil and what isn’t?
It would be a world to dive into, were it not for the film’s brutality. The animation is clear, reminiscent of watercolour paintings or book illustrations, and it stays more or less loyal to one style. But this gentle elegance is disrupted by gruesome depictions of battle scenes, suicides and killings. Viewers expecting a dark comedy from the premise of two groups of cuddly animals and fantastical creatures killing each other may be surprised by the film’s more sombre shifts. For theirs is an epic reign of blood, amplified by occasional musical accentuations.
A co-production between France and Spain, Unicorn Wars is produced by Abano Producións, Uniko Estudio Creativo, Schmuby Productions and Autour de Minuit.
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