Throughout the soon-to-be-over awards season, as Guillermo del Toro collected trophies for his mature reimagining of “Pinocchio,” the filmmaker repeatedly advocated for animation to stop being mistakenly designated as a genre, when it is in fact a versatile medium effective in telling stories of all kinds and not only family-oriented fare.
Exemplary proof of Del Toro’s pronouncement is “Unicorn Wars,” the hyper-grisly and philosophically rich second feature from Spanish illustrator and animator Alberto Vázquez.
This blood-soaked fable stars a pack of rainbow-colored teddy bears waging carnage against the unicorns that inhabit a divine forest — think the Garden of Eden. But don’t be deceived by the cuddly exterior of the round-faced characters. They engage in graphic acts of violence, a drug-fueled descent into madness, bear nudity and plenty of verbal vitriol.
The dissonance between the adorable design of the anthropomorphic animals and the caustic harshness of their behavior has been Vázquez’s artistic signature since his acclaimed short films and his debut feature “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children.” But the intent of such marked contrast feels more narratively ambitious in “Unicorn Wars,” since it illustrates the atrocities of war, religious indoctrination and the cyclical nature of conflict.
Told in vibrant hand-drawn animation, the tale begins in a military camp where bear soldiers receive physical training, as well as an ideological brainwashing by a priest who fans the flames of hatred. He cites a Bible-like holy text as reason to annihilate all unicorns, presented as dark silhouetted creatures, and reclaim the woodland for all bear folk. Chanting the poisonous slogan “good unicorn, dead unicorn,” the platoon of young, cute, and underprepared fighters will soon set out on a perilous quest in the trenches.
Among the recruits there are brothers Bluey (Jon Goirizelaia), a perverse and self-centered manipulator, and Tubby (Jaione Insausti), kindhearted and eventually determined. They are Vazquez’s own Cain and Abel. Early on, Bluey stands out for his unabashed malevolence and his abrasive, by-any-means desire to become a respected, feared leader.
Flashbacks later reveal that his sadistic mistreatment of his only sibling started during their time inside their mother’s womb. And as adult Bluey’s festering envy escalates into murderous cruelty, so does his hellbent conviction to attain power. That Vazquez conceived the bellicose saga of brotherly discord from the point of view of this villainous, though far from simplistically rendered figure results in a fascinating, if unsettling study on the nature of evil.
With clear references to animated predecessors including “Watership Down,” Disney’s “Bambi,” the Care Bears and even environmentalist aspects that invoke Hayao Miyazaki’s oeuvre, Vazquez aims for a visual and thematic dichotomy. Distinct color palettes and aesthetic choices separate the bear and unicorn realms, with the former showing more cartoonish sensibilities, while the other features more realistic depictions of the animal kingdom.
The warring parties involved in this gruesome conflict, made only slightly less disturbing because it‘s not live action, clearly symbolize the duality that torments the human condition. As much as we are prone to greed and resentment, we can also choose to surrender to our better instincts.
An inspired antiwar epic that recently won the Goya Award (Spain’s equivalent to an Oscar) for animated film, Vazquez’s sophomore nightmarish fairy tale culminates with frighteningly revelatory imagery signaling the pattern of destruction that has characterized human history.
Even this early in the year, it seems unfathomable that another release could dethrone “Unicorn Wars” as the most uncompromisingly audacious animated film of 2023.
In Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: Alamo Drafthouse, downtown Los Angeles