Credit: GKIDS
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Horizon Line

Unicorn Wars — Alberto Vásquez

March 10, 2023

Alberto Vázquez is the sleeper MVP of the film animation world. Japanese auteurs like Makato Shinkai, Masaaki Yuasa, and Mamoru Hosoda have comfortably slid into the sphere of highly-anticipated “serious cinema”; Pixar continues to precariously bob around the drain they’ve been circling for a while; and the umpteenth entries of popular anime franchises reliably fill theaters across the globe. But Vázquez’s work has proven a singular, refreshing presence across this past decade-plus. Breaking out on an international scale in 2015 with debut feature Birdboy: The Forgotten Children — a macabre but movingly beautiful, eco-themed nightmare of post-apocalyptic imagery and existential creep — the director (and illustrator/graphic novelist) has since stuck to shorts, evolving both his visual palette and his thematic ambitions. Unicorn Wars, his sophomore feature, hits U.S. theaters this week, courtesy of GKIDS, and with it the director delivers an altogether bolder, more sensorial affair, confrontational and brutal in ways the eerie but sweet-underneath Birdboy wasn’t quite. 

For evidence of Vázquez’s more provocative leanings here, look no further than his new film’s title: its two words feel at immediate odds with each other, one recalling the innocence and imagination of fairy tales while the other invoking violence and death (press notes even describe the film as “Bambi meets Apocalypse Now”). It’s truly a perfect fit for the director’s latest — in narrative, visual, and thematic terms. Let’s start with the first of those: Unicorn Wars tells the story of the final days of an age-old conflict between a race of squishmallow-looking “teddy bears” and their sworn nemeses, the unicorns (this plot being a robust expansion and reconfiguring of Vázquez’s 2013 short, Unicorn Blood). Roughly twenty minutes in, we get a bit of background exposition, courtesy of a sacred teddy bear propagandist text cum religious doctrine (explicated by a warpriest) that establishes the fanatical, Crusades-esque charge of righteous vengeance against the “demonic” unicorns, as well as invoking some Edenesque imagery/mythology in the form of the magical forest from which the teddy bears were long ago expelled. 

The title of Unicorn Wars also immediately asserts the film’s primary schema: specifically, establishing a series of dichotomies to smash together and entangle. None is more crucial than that of its central protagonist-antagonist duo of Bluey and Tubby, twins who are… blue and tubby, respectively. In keeping with the thematic vein of religious zealotry, the dynamic of this narrative shares plenty of DNA with that of Cain and Abel, though there are also specific details about Bluey and Tubby’s childhood and the traumas and resentments that have festered in the formative years since their youth. Bluey is ruthless, ambitious, and cruel, thirsty for slaughter and merciless in tongue and action; Tubby is gentle and kind, prone to stress eating and insecurity, and coded as effete. It follows, then, that they will ultimately manifest the film’s central construction of good vs. evil, to be layered with and played out against the ongoing war’s essential binary.

If that all sounds determinedly allegorical, however, that wouldn’t be exactly accurate. Vázquez cribs as liberally from the tradition of fable as he does from recent history’s tradition of ultra-nationalist military fascism and cinema’s representation of war’s atrocities. After a quick foreshadowing sequence featuring a young unicorn coming face-to-face with an undulating, amorphous blob trying to snack down on the innocent, Unicorn Wars opens proper with a series of scenes of the DayGlo-colored, claw machine-looking teddy bears engaged in boot camp-styled grunt training and barracks-set character mapping, uncannily recalling the likes of Full Metal Jacket and Platoon (“Honour, pain, and cuddles” is their motto). We see how these soldiers are conditioned with hatred for the other; we see the fascist regime’s higher-ups safe in their offices, emotionlessly discussing the necessity of collateral damage and planning the impending suicide mission assigned to Bluey and Tubby’s troop; we hear the rhetoric that suggests a Holy War of sorts, reasserting the film’s religious infrastructure, yes, but also — in its modern combat-era images — drawing in the post-Renaissance’s prevailing religion: imperialism. 

But explicit metaphor isn’t Vázquez’s game; he’s far more interested in ladling references and evocative imagery on top of his distinctive visual design, which offers the foundation necessary for any of his tonal maneuvers and thematic/intellectual invocations to succeed. Unicorn Wars’ visual character establishes the film firmly in horror territory (seeing as Judeo-Christian religious imagery is a core foundation of a good deal of horror anyway, it already had a headstart); in contrast, itsteddy bear characters not only insinuate childhood in language and depiction, but act in overtly infantile ways: they cry over minor emotional slights and physical wounds, bed-wetting is used as a repeated insult, characters accuse others of trying to peek at their “willy.” Children are being sent to wage war, in other words, but Vázquez envelops that violence and its retributions in a tonally discordant technicolor. The animation here is a vibrantly colored and effectively disorienting and haunting blend of 2D and 3D (as well as some 3D that was converted to 2D), with scenes of bloody massacre playing out under foliage the color and texture of cotton candy; bobble eyes glow ghostly white after skulls are caved in; dark but red-rimmed silhouettes populate the frames (building on the look of the director’s 2020 short Homeless Home); and unicorn bodies are impaled with a quiver’s worth of heart-shaped arrows before a death’s amount of blood drains from their bodies. There’s even a trippy, drug-induced freakout sequence, after the hungry child soldiers eat the psychotropic, rainbow flesh of some forest slugs, that rivals Gaspar Noé’s Climax, to roughly as horrific ends.

That Argentinian-French enfant terrible may be the most useful reference point for Unicorn Wars, if an unlikely one. As with plenty of Noe’s films, the central conceit here — Care Bears-meets-Vietnam War — may be too gimmicky for some, but like that director at his best, Vázquez’s executes a bold, maximalist expression, one committed to building a controlled chaos rather than an easily parsable exercise in simple analoging. Unicorn Wars is both distinctly anti-war and stealthily anti-fabulist, with no moral to glean from its apologue texturing — Vázquez has always been a dark creator, tending maybe even toward fatalism, and this film’s ending thrillingly reminds viewers of that fact. Still, none of this proves reflective of the film’s sum; as is the way with binaries, much in Unicorn Wars is easily identifiable as a familiarity — good vs. evil, brother vs. brother, religion vs. humanism, dominion vs. co-existence; there’s even the inflection of a villain’s origin story here, which is itself inherently one half of a dichotomy — but none is reducible to it. Despite a myriad of influences and references, what’s undeniable is that Vázquez is operating from a playbook of his own creation. If his work suggests that he doesn’t feel too optimistic about the state of modern existence and its future, we can at least feel better that he’s bringing something worthwhile to cinema’s current era of flattened and soul-dead animated art.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.