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Spanish animator Alberto Vázquez is setting himself up for a challenge with “Unicorn Wars.” An uneasy blend of non-threatening characters and disturbing content is a signature for Vázquez: His last feature film, 2015’s “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” is about a group of cartoon animal teenagers struggling to survive a post-nuclear hellscape. His latest continues this trend, taking serious-minded musings on the nature of evil and placing them in a world that seems designed not to be taken seriously. As a result, it has to work twice as hard to make its points. To Vázquez’s credit, enough of them stick.
The film takes place in a reality where teddy bears with big soft eyes and giant spherical heads—all designed to be just different enough from a certain ‘80s cartoon big on hugs and caring—are embroiled in a holy war against a race of enchanted unicorns. This conflict has been going on longer than any of the characters in this film have been alive, and the monstrous military regime that emerged in the interim is propped up by the teachings of a religion that also bears a resemblance to a real-life institution. (IP, theology, same difference, right?)
Vázquez’s critique of Catholicism is loud and clear in the plot that spins out from this premise, as does his affection for classic war-is-hell films. After an enigmatic cold open, the story begins with a unit of young, would-be teddy-bear soldiers being whipped into shape at a boot camp where “cuddles are made from steel, blood, and pain!” At the core of the group are two brothers: bratty, aggressive Azulín and long-suffering Gordi. Azulín is awful to his brother, bullying him for his weight and accusing him of wetting the bed in front of their fellow recruits. Gordi just takes it, and always forgives.
The almost comically tragic backstory that led Azulín and Gordi to this point is a subplot in the larger story of what happens to the brothers once they leave the fascistic safety of boot camp and go out into a Vietnam-like jungle to hunt their magical enemy. This through-line is a descent into hell in the “Apocalypse Now” mold. And Vázquez adds a mind-bending element straight out of that movie by inserting a drug-fueled psychedelic freakout—achieved, naturally, by sucking the guts out of living, screaming cartoon caterpillars—in between scenes of animated bloodshed.
The film doesn’t hold back in terms of gore. In one scene, Azulín, Gordi, and company stumble onto a campground full of mutilated teddy corpses, with maggots falling from dead bears’ mouths and bear intestines draped from trees like bloody crepe paper. These creative tableaus of animated death speak to the joke that’s at the very core of this movie, the same joke that’s fueled a solid percentage of Adult Swim’s output over the years: Wouldn’t it be funny if cute stuff that’s meant for kids was actually, like, super messed up? This is, of course, a one-note premise and one whose novelty wears off fast. But while “Unicorn Wars” undoubtedly indulges this impulse—think cartoon genitalia and bears hanging themselves in despair—it thankfully also has more going on.
One of those things is the anti-Catholic theme mentioned above; the other is the rendering of the environment itself. While the teddy bears and their world are drawn in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon, other parts of the film use impressionistic techniques that read more like storybook illustrations or illuminated manuscripts. The influence of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli is evident in the parts of the film that actually engage with the unicorns, who have a sacred duty to protect the environment a lá “Princess Mononoke” and battle a burbling ball of anthropomorphic hate that recalls No-Face in “Spirited Away.” Combined with a painterly approach to its Lisa Frank-like color palette—think magenta, teal, hot pink, and neon blue—it’s all quite pleasurable to look at.
“Unicorn Wars” would be richer if it had spent more time developing this mythology rather than with our feuding bear brothers, whose story gets heavy-handed in the overstuffed, poorly paced back half of the movie. As Vázquez keeps adding elements in its last half hour, “Unicorn Wars” starts to feel like the beginning of a trilogy or maybe a TV series that got canceled unexpectedly and had to wrap up its storyline in a handful of episodes. But for a movie that, on its surface, runs a real risk of being a shallow joke painfully stretched out to feature length, maybe having too much going on is a blessing.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.
Jon Goiri as Azulín (voice)
Jaione Insausti as Gordi (voice)
Ramón Barea as Narrador (voice)
Txema Regalado as Padre (voice)
Manu Heras as Sargento Caricias / Papá (voice)
Gaizka Soria as Coco (voice)
Iker Diaz as Achuchones (voice)
Estívaliz Lizárraga as Pandi (voice)
Pedro Arrieta as Blackie (voice)
Alberto Vázquez as Sonrisas (voice)