If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise
If you go down in the woods today, you’d better go in disguise
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain because
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic.
– “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” by Henry Hall and His Orchestra
Born out of his 2013 short film Sangre de unicornio (Unicorn Blood), writer/director Alberto Vázquez (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children) is his latest feature film, Unicorn Wars, a sugar-wrapped allegory for the perils of faith and the destruction of nature. It’s gruesome, horrible, and will leave you with a sinking pit in the center of your stomach, not because of the violence committed on screen by the innocent-looking Care Bear-esque teddy bears subjected to Full Metal Jacket-like (1987) situations, but for the truth that courses throughout the entire production. Beautiful and hypnotic, horrifying and nightmare-inducing, Unicorn Wars is a cautionary tale all should listen to before it’s too late.
Long ago, the forest was created and populated with all of nature’s creatures and there was peace. One day, the bears stumbled upon an altar containing The Word, declaring their divine providence over the forest and prompting the bears to defend their claim. Thus began the Unicorn Wars, with the bears, now evolved to teddy bears, setting up outposts, developing boot camps, and utilizing other methods of war in order to take back what they believe is theirs. Prophesied with their gospel, the one who drinks the blood of the last unicorn will become beautiful and immortal, reigning over all the teddy bears, and that’s all that some need to evolve further into the greatest killer or protector of unicorns.
Unicorn Wars is the type of film that’ll fill you with disquiet from the start. Vázquez’s art design is deliberate — light and colorful, a mixture of hand-drawn and 3D animation in the foreground and what appears to be matte or watercolor in the background — intentionally conveying an otherworldliness and yet familiarity. The opening scene features a young unicorn searching for its mother, the creature all black except for its white eyes. Set within the healthy green of nature, it’s at once fearsome and beautiful, a delicate creature whose horn is capable of piercing the softest flesh, a mythical paradox of vulnerability and ascendancy. Soon after, the audience is introduced to the teddy bears at boot camp, stationed at Love Camp, the high-pitched voices and soft bodies conveying both ignorance and immaturity. This place lacks the color of the forest, built of variations of black, purple, and red, where even the ground, barren though it may be, looks to be fertilized with blood. In contrast to the child unicorn, Vázquez’s teddy bears appear like actual children, taunting one another in childish ways, so terrible in their basic training that they may as well be toy soldiers, playing at war. Each frame is constructed with such purpose, a constant juxtaposition of some of the most awe-inspiring design work against some of the vilest actions.
In horror films or traditional fables, one can always identify evil from its features. That the unicorns are absent color, existing in a strict binary of black and white, where the teddy bears are a variety of colors, implies a goodness of one over another. Considering the structure of the tale and the actions the audience witnesses, Vázquez’s intentionality is clear here: do you trust what you see? Do you trust what you hear? Which one is the threat and why? In seeking an answer for this question, Vázquez primarily focuses on two brothers in basic together — the bitter Azulin (voiced by Jon Goirizelaia) and the struggling for acceptance Gordi (voiced by Jaione Insausti) — as they each try to find their place within the social structure of their community. Through these two, Vázquez’s narrative explores familial bonds, the war machine, faith, and nature; each layer constructed and deconstructed until all that’s left is ashes in our mouths. For all his desire to be strong and brave, Azulin is weak of character and thus never as beautiful, as secure, or as talented as he wants to be. To make up for this, Azulin often turns to violence, never realizing that his frustrations are unsatisfied when his abrasive acts put him on top. Conversely, Gordi’s quest for peace comes from having a kind heart that’s constantly taken advantage of, especially by Azulin; his journey being about whether a kind heart can perceiver in wartime. But where Gordi needs no higher power to inspire his goodness or acts of piety, Azulin believes that faith will grant him the power he lacks. Via this diverging character arc, Vázquez is able to explore the confounding duplicitousness of faith, whether in a holy scripture or in people who profit from your actions, and the lengths the selfish will go to secure what they believe they deserve or what they are owed. Unicorn Wars is a hard story constructed through soft and warm cuteness, a world in which art and fantasy converge to reveal a hard truth about our very real world: we may be the monsters we fight.
At 92 minutes, Unicorn Wars does start to crumble under the weight of its aspirations. In under nine minutes, the original short tells nearly the same tale with a few important differences. Lengthened, Vázquez is able to really dig into the material, offering plenty of opportunities for him to hammer home the film’s feelings on each of its themes. The extended journey, between establishing the unicorns, the teddy bears, the mythology of the world, and character-centric flashbacks, does feel like it meanders a tad, unable to hold it all together without losing steam. To its credit, the ending does hurt profoundly, surprising to the point of disquiet, the acts of violence landing with a crescendo that paralyzes.
Prior to its Fantastic Fest screening, GKids Films announced their acquisition of Vázquez’s Unicorn Wars which is slated for a wider release in 2023 after continuing on the festival circuit. This is a film that’ll fit nicely among their catalogue which includes Grave of the Fireflies (1988), This Magnificent Cake! (2018), Funan (2019), and continues their support of the Birdboy writer/director. Unicorn Wars is a film whose message would be lost in any other medium and deemed too bloody, too filled with viscera, too wild and too untamed for public consumption. But packaged like a confection laced with Four Loco, there’s a prospect that audiences will take a chance on the demented tale and allow themselves to be opened up by it and study what they find.
Screening during Fantastic Fest 2022.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.