Animation aimed at adults is nothing new. Whether it be humor disguised in children’s cartoons like The Flintstones that is very clearly aimed at an older demographic or movies like Fritz the Cat openly flaunting its NC-17 rating, it’s easy to forget that adults have been a target audience for animation for years. It just so happens that most animation typically gets marketed toward children and is presented in a family-friendly context.
Nowadays, adult animation feels like an abnormality, with most projects either using their animation to depict senseless dark humor or bleak nihilism because that’s the expectation with adult animation. Frankly, it’s limiting and doesn’t really take advantage of what a truly adult animated film can accomplish. That isn’t to say that Unicorn Wars doesn’t have dark humor or bleak nihilism, but those elements are merely to serve the main ideas that the film is trying to accomplish.
Unicorn Wars is definitely a strange movie to recommend. It’s a deconstruction of fascism, war, and religious zealotry through the guise of watching teddy bears murder unicorns. Even then, it feels like there’s a whole lot more under the surface that isn’t the main attraction but is there for audiences to chew on. The film begins and ends with a technicolor nightmare sequence promising that the world you are about to walk into will leave you scarred by the time you reach the end, which it most certainly accomplished. Not only that, but it lets you watch a bunch of teddy bears get high on caterpillar guts. So there’s something for everyone here!
Director: Alberto Vazquez
Release Date: March 10, 2023 (Theatrical/Digital)
For as long as they can remember, the teddy bears have been at war with the unicorns. The unicorns exiled the bears from the Magic Forest years ago and since then, the bears have been preparing to launch an invasion of the forest to reclaim it as their own. The bigwigs in charge of the war don’t want it to end since they can remain in power, but the foot soldiers want nothing more than to fight and die for what they think is theirs. Bluey (Jon Giorizelaia) is one such bear, who has a deep inferiority complex and wants nothing more than to fulfill a prophecy propped up by the Church that the person to kill the last unicorn will be seen as divine. His timid brother, Tubby (Jaione Insausti), couldn’t be more different from his homicidal brother, frequently just wanting to find a peaceful option and avoid conflict. The war will test these two brothers, and the results will be devastating.
Right off the bat, there’s a lot to unpack with Unicorn Wars. The film is pretty blatant when it comes to stating the dehumanization that war causes not only to people but society as the bears cheer for their soldiers to take on the unicorns. We see the soldiers readily volunteer to kill the unicorns, thinking they are doing so for a noble cause, only to wilt and panic once they reach the dank and musty forest and crack under the pressure. It’s nothing that we haven’t seen from other war movies, Apocalypse Now and All Quiet On The Western Front really capture that message perfectly, but what makes Unicorn Wars at least a different flavor of anti-war messaging is its connections to religion, the journey its lead pair of brothers take, and of course, the animation.
The film slathers all of its characters and its messaging behind religious iconography. One of the early supporting characters, a priest employed at the boot camp, describes in a sermon that the war against the unicorns is a holy war for sacred land, drawing direct comparisons to the Crusades. If you’re at all familiar with the Crusades and the efforts that the Christians took to reclaim Jerusalem, then a lot of the metaphors that are in play really click into place and help to paint the bears as being in the wrong. They insert themselves in a place they do not belong and create a conflict where there was none to begin with. The unicorns are a fairly gentle group of animals and don’t attack unless provoked by the bears, more concerned with trying to preserve the forests, live their lives, and raise their families
You can draw a lot of comparisons to the war depicted here and several real-world conflicts that countries (coughamericacough) inserted themselves into for some nonsensical cause. It’s not surprising then that most of the sequences in the film evoke Vietnam-era imagery. I’m a bit split on the idea of using cute animated animals to depict the war, however. On one hand, it does help to give Unicorn Wars a distinct visual identity when compared to other anti-war war movies, but I find the use of the cute animals actually a bit distracting.
When the film is set in boot camp, the animals are mostly talking and conversing amongst themselves about their cute and cuddly traits, like one having pretty teeth, another with cuddly eyes, and one boasting about their soft fur, but none of that actually factors into the film in any way. It does help to inform us about Bluey as a character and how he’s all about appearances and displaying superiority to his comrades, but the cute and cuddly exterior of the film is more style than substance. At times it feels like that’s the only trick that the film is relying on and if it was animated humans the film would lose a lot of its impact.
But damn, what a wow factor it is. The film is absolutely mesmerizing at times and presents the audience with sequence after sequence of psychedelic depravity. Everything looks like a vivid fever dream, with soft and pleasant pinks and yellows contrasting with dark and chaotic reds and purples. Several sequences stand out as being extra impressive, like the aforementioned caterpillar drug trip and the large-scale climax with explosions and entrails flying all over the place.
The characters of Unicorn Wars are a bit of a mixed bag. Most exist simply to die and don’t get a whole lot of development. There’s a moment nearly halfway into the film where one of the bears starts to come onto Tubby, but it’s just a gag that offers set-up but no pay-off. Then you have a character who is built up to be a major player and a rival figure to Bluey, only for him to be unceremoniously written out of the film, his involvement amounting to nothing.
Bluey and Tubby are the driving force of the film and you’re either going to love or hate how the film portrays them. You’ll feel for Tubby and pity his kind soul being forced through this arbitrary war, but also feel kind of gross at the mean-spirited jokes and derision aimed at him, which feels more and more unnecessary the longer the film goes on. Then you have Bluey, who is just cartoonishly evil to the point of being detestable. It ties into the point of Unicorn Wars, that all of those who perpetrate war are either doing so for self-interest or are genocidal monsters, but when the film also takes time to try and make him sympathetic, it doesn’t land. The flashback sequences with Bluey and Tubby as kids feel especially conflicting in retrospect if only because of how hard the movie tries to make you empathize with Bluey and his struggles mere minutes after he intentionally sacrifices his own men for his own sick desire to kill more unicorns.
At the end of the day, Unicorn Wars is a thought-provoking film about war that is stunningly animated and impossible to turn your eyes away from. The cute and cuddly animated veneer does come across as forced and if you take it away the film would lose a lot of its appeal, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is present and it does work, for the most part. Its messages are sound, but its characters are a lot less of a hit and range from being unimpressive and forgettable to vehemently hateful and nasty. As it stands, there’s a disconnect between the characters, the story, and the themes, which is a shame. At times, you’ll be floored and craving more of that wonderful animation. Not exactly a masterpiece of anti-war messaging, but undeniably an entertaining one.