Watch trailers or view images of Alberto Vázquez’s shockingly gruesome animated fable Unicorn Warsviewers may find themselves absentmindedly humming a long-forgotten tune: the theme of any Care Bears TV show with which they grew up. Any resemblance between the murderous, fanatical bears of Unicorn Wars and their kid-friendly counterparts, Vázquez tells Polygon, is completely intentional.
“It was a series that I really liked when I was little, Care bears“The Spanish writer-director and graphic novelist says, partially speaking through an interpreter. “I like to play with animal iconography. Anthropomorphic animals do not belong to any specific culture or time period. They actually belong to everyone. They are part of everyone’s childhood.”
It is a guarantee that no one had Care Bears like those in his childhood until now Unicorn Wars. While Vázquez’s characters have the curvy, cute bodies, big eyes, and pastel colors of children’s show characters, they also have visible genitalia and remarkable sex drive, foul mouths, foul tempers, and in some cases deep-seated psychosis. Their war-oriented culture leads to many of the characters being graphically maimed and killed as the story unfolds, and the film ends with a very shocking sequence that seems designed to test the audience’s stamina.
(Ed. remark: This interview contains spoilers for the end Unicorn Wars.)
But none of this is intended as a provocation or offense against the edgelord. By creating a gruesome metaphor about the root causes of war, Vázquez wanted to lean on universal imagery to ensure that viewers around the world would view the film in the same way, without seeing specific nationalistic intent or the history of a specific country .
“They’re iconic — and not just the Care Bears icons in particular,” he says. Similar to his previous animated film, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, he wanted to use cartoon animals because every country has its own versions of that idea. “I like to work with recognizable iconography. In Bird boy, it was mice and rabbits. That way, when you see this movie, you can’t really tell where it came from – you can’t tell if it’s Spanish, American, Japanese, or French.
The symbolism in it Unicorn Wars is equally broad and simple: the culture of the bears is built around a military-industrial complex aimed at demonizing unicorns and waging endless war against them. The bears have a sacred book that states that their ancestors lived in the sacred forest, close to God, but the unicorns unjustly drove them out. As the film progresses, it focuses on two sibling bears, Tubby and Bluey, who represent different sides in the war of attrition against the unicorns – and, fundamentally, against nature and the environment.
In the late stages of the film, Tubby and Bluey have each become radicalized. Bluey leads a coup against the leaders of his own faction, kills them and takes control of the bear army. Tubby goes back to nature, lives peacefully with the unicorns and immerses herself in the forest, away from civilization. But Bluey, determined to prove his superiority, leads his army into the forest and burns it, slaughtering all the unicorns in a bloody battle, killing Tubby and dying himself. A shapeless, devouring monster first seen in the film’s opening scenes rises from the hollowed-out corpses of both unicorns and bears, and the collective doom of the ancient world takes on a new form: what appears to be the first human to be.
For Vázquez, that story is about analyzing humanity’s darkest impulses, and the institutions that fuel and control those impulses in order to maintain power. “It’s a war movie, and war is very dark and about the worst of people,” he says. “I really wanted to talk about the common origin of all wars. So while it may seem like an imaginary Vietnam War, all wars are the same to me.”
Perhaps the element in the movie that feels the least universal and the hardest to understand is that shapeless, grasping, hungry monster in the woods. Vázquez explains: “The monster in the film acts as a prologue and epilogue. It serves as a metaphor for what comes next. The monster for me is a God without form, a God who is worshiped as a leader, but a God who has yet to evolve. When the end comes, the God takes shape and the prophecy of the Book of the Bears is fulfilled. It’s a magical, mysterious element that’s there to reinforce the concept of what violence does to a society.”
But in the end, the film is less about the monster and more about the message – specifically about those in power who profit from wars and the means they use to keep themselves in power. “The bears have a very religious and militaristic culture that dominates public opinion,” says Vázquez. “He who controls discourse and information controls war. The way they talk about fanaticism – religion is a form of control. A war with ideology is much more dangerous than a war without it.”
Where Bird boy ends with at least a hint of hope, Unicorn Wars rips away from the characters and the world any chance of hope or recovery. And it’s also infinitely cynical about what humanity is made of. Vázquez says that’s no coincidence either. “The film is all about contrasts,” he says. “In the beginning it feels like a humorous film, but then it becomes a more dramatic and sad film. And by the end it’s a horror movie. I like to provoke the audience, but I also like to provoke emotion – and something impressive and shocking provokes emotion.
But again, he sees the end of Unicorn Wars and its nihilistic message as realistic, not an offense in itself. “I want to be very radical with the message in my stories,” he explains. “I don’t want to hide anything. It’s a very bellicose and violent movie, and I think the ending is appropriate for the theme. It might be uncomfortable for certain audiences, but I love it when an audience feels uncomfortable. I want them to feel moved. I like movies where, even if they’re not perfect, they leave a memory.”
Unicorn Wars now playing in select theaters — see the film’s website for details – and is available for rental on Amazon, Vuduand other digital platforms.