Throughout the soon-to-be-ending awards season, as Guillermo del Toro collected trophies for his mature version of “Pinocchio,” the filmmaker repeatedly advocated that animation stop being misdesignated as a genre, when in fact it is a medium. versatile. effective for telling stories of all kinds and not just of a family nature.
Exemplary proof of del Toro’s pronouncement is “Unicorn Wars,” the hyper-scary and philosophically rich second feature from Spanish illustrator and animator Alberto Vázquez.
This blood-soaked fable stars a pack of rainbow-colored teddy bears who wage carnage against unicorns inhabiting a divine forest—think Garden of Eden. But don’t be fooled by the cute exterior of the round-faced characters. They engage in graphic acts of violence, a drug-fuelled descent into madness, bear stripping, and much verbal vitriol.
The dissonance between the adorable design of anthropomorphic animals and the caustic harshness of their demeanor has been Vázquez’s artistic signature since his acclaimed short films and his debut feature “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children”. But the intent of such a stark contrast feels narratively more ambitious in “Unicorn Wars,” as it illustrates the atrocities of war, religious indoctrination, and the cyclical nature of the conflict.
Told in vibrant hand-drawn animation, the story begins in a military camp where bear soldiers receive physical training as well as ideological brainwashing by a priest who fans the flames of hate. He cites a sacred Bible-like text as a reason to annihilate all unicorns, presented as dark silhouetted creatures, and reclaim the forest for all bears. Chanting the poisonous catchphrase “good unicorn, dead unicorn,” the platoon of young, cute, and underprepared fighters soon set out on a dangerous trench quest.
Among the recruits are brothers Bluey (Jon Goirizelaia), a wicked and self-centered manipulator, and Tubby (Jaione Insausti), kind-hearted and eventually determined. They are Caín and Abel de Vázquez themselves. At first, Bluey is noted for his brazen malevolence and his abrasive desire to become a respected and feared leader.
Flashbacks later reveal that his sadistic mistreatment of his only brother began during his time inside his mother’s womb. And as adult Bluey’s festering envy turns to murderous cruelty, so does his hellish drive for power. That Vázquez conceived the bellicose saga of brotherly discord from the point of view of this villain, while far from being a simplistic figure, makes for a fascinating, if disturbing study in the nature of evil.
With clear references to its animated predecessors, such as “Watership Down,” Disney’s “Bambi,” Care Bears, and even environmental aspects that invoke the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Vázquez seeks a visual and thematic dichotomy. Distinct color palettes and aesthetic choices separate the bear and unicorn kingdoms, with the former displaying more cartoonish sensibilities, while the other features more realistic representations of the animal kingdom.
The warring parties involved in this gruesome conflict, only slightly less disturbing because it’s not live action, clearly symbolize the duality that haunts the human condition. As much as we are prone to greed and resentment, we can also choose to give in to our better instincts.
An inspired anti-war epic that recently won the Goya Award (the Spanish equivalent of an Oscar) for animated film, Vázquez’s second nightmarish fairy tale culminates in terrifyingly revealing images that point to the pattern of destruction that has characterized human history. .
Even this early in the year, it seems inconceivable that another release could unseat “Unicorn Wars” as the boldest and most uncompromising animated film of 2023.
In Spanish with English subtitles
Execution time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Alamo Drafthouse, Downtown Los Angeles