Animated Movie

Unicorn Wars

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.

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