In creating Unicorn Wars, Spanish filmmaker Alberto Vázquez is purported to have used three main points of reference: Bambi, the Bible, and Apocalypse Now.
It certainly shows. Vázquez’s animated epic about a longstanding feud between unicorns and teddy bears doubles down on the nihilism, descending into a pastel-coloured heart of darkness where cute cartoon characters are weaponised and beauty and innocence obliterated in the most graphic ways imaginable.
It’s far from an easy watch: a heavy-handed, guts-and-all journey into the darkest facets of war, channelling the same ‘adorable beings doing atrocious things’ as Happy Tree Friends or a feature length episode of Itchy & Scratchy. The scarring, gritty realism of Watership Down might be an obvious comparison, but Full Metal Jacket is perhaps a more accurate reference, albeit with a more surrealist approach as Vázquez looks to emphasise how violence and prejudice can penetrate and corrupt even the most virtuous of us.
Not that the bears are exactly loveable. In fact, they are often quite the opposite: bitter, scheming creatures intent on humiliating each other at every opportunity. They are also, as the film makes abundantly clear in its first act, woefully unprepared for war. The action centers on two of them, brothers Bluey and Tubby, members of a troop of inexperienced soldiers being primed for a journey into a magical forest in search of a lost scouting group. Stationed at the paradoxically-named ‘Camp Love’, Bluey, Tubby and the rest of their cohort – wide-eyed, brightly-coloured recruits with names like Coco and Snuggles – are moulded into sadistic warriors for their seemingly never-ending battle with the forest’s horned inhabitants.
It is religious and political indoctrination by way of cupid bows and heart-shaped arrows; by repeated readings from a sacred book that decrees bears as the superior species and promises eternal life and beauty to whoever drinks the blood of the last unicorn. And so against the backdrop of some gorgeously realised world building, Unicorn Wars mines some alarmingly dark depths: an unflinching, ultra-graphic meditation on conflict and prejudice and the forces that allow it to perpetuate. There’s little catharsis to be found anywhere here, only murder, suicide, horrifying hallucinations, and the annihilation of the natural world. Vázquez’s script suitably simmers with equal parts humour, anger and tragedy, while the animation potently contrasts the vibrant beauty of the surroundings with the blood-soaked bleakness of battle.
Ultimately though, the hardest blow of Unicorn Wars’ devastatingly downbeat world view is reserved for its final, striking frames. In skewering the notion of heroism, Vázquez’s film reinforces the reality that, when it comes to war, there are only ever victims and villains.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_GeorgeNash for more movie musings