Mayhem 2022: Unicorn Wars

The Spanish animated war film pits Care Bears against Unicorns – but it transcends its conceit to become a bleak, unsettling tale of conflict, sibling rivalry and madness.

Some film festival slots are carefully created while some evolve through pure luck. The Mayhem Film Festival now seems to have developed a Saturday midday animation section without actually trying to – last year, it was The Spine of Night (which we’ll be looking at shortly) and this year, the honours went to Unicorn Wars, a determinedly odd Spanish cartoon. I say ‘cartoon’ very consciously because that is what this film emulates in look – the Saturday morning wholesome kids cartoon, most specifically Care Bears and the like. The fact that it is playing at a horror film festival might be your first clue that this is not going to be wholesome kiddie fare – however, it does little to prepare you for what is about to come.

Unicorn Wars is a militaristic nightmare, in fact. It plays on the absurdity of its characters, who are indeed cuddly, cute teddy bear types that probably sit just about on the legal side of plagiarism from Care Bears in appearance but who are all very recognisable as a type. In the early part of the film, their fluffy cuteness is heavily emphasised and then contrasted with their brutal, Full Metal Jacket-inspired militaristic training as they are sent out into the forest on a pointless mission to become ‘collateral damage’ in a war against unicorns, their inevitable deaths to be used for propaganda purposes. At the centre of this ill-trained military unit are brothers Bluey and Tubby (at least that’s what the English subtitles call them – the original soundtrack refers to them as Azulín and Gordi, so it’s a reasonable translation) who have a troubled relationship, the origins of which we see in continuing flashbacks.

The unicorns appear to be peaceful, maternal forest dwellers – we get the impression that this is not a war of their making, though when it comes to battles, they are more than capable of holding their own. The bears are a militaristic, fascistic society whose leaders seem to have created an enemy in order to help maintain their grip on power. However, we’re dropped into the middle of this conflict and there may be other interpretations to be reached if we had more of the film’s snippets of war history, which hint at a long and brutal war stretching back generations. In any case, the use of troops as cannon fodder, the mental breakdown caused by conflict and the psychotic manipulations of power-crazed higher-ups will be familiar to any regular viewer of post-Vietnam war movies (or, indeed, daily news broadcasts). This does feel very much a film of its time, complete with a gender war aspect (all the unicorns are female, all the militaristic bears male – though the back story involving Bluey and Tubby’s mother does dilute this aspect a tad).

Where Alberto Vázquez’s film becomes very, very odd is the slow progression from cartoonish novelty to bleak war movie. I suppose that once you’ve introduced these unlikely characters and placed them in a world that is entirely removed from the wholesome, happy shiny world of pre-schooler cartoons, there is going to be a struggle to figure out just where to go with that. Everything that I had heard about this film in advance rather suggested that it would be wildly satirical throughout, continually taking us back to the central conceit of the film. That’s not the case at all though. This is actually a decidedly grim story, painted in very dark hues. Once you get past the fact that these are cuddly, vividly coloured teddy bears, then it becomes a straight-faced, bloody story of conflict and horror. The film itself seems very aware that it needs to pull back from the cutesy content as the story progresses – it allows audiences to get the laughter and the “oh look, it’s a cute teddybear smoking and swearing, oh look he’s taking a piss” amusement out of the way early on – the audience laughter gradually faded away during the first act and the film was watched in an increasingly numb silence from that point on, as the characters simply became characters rather than jokes. At this point, Unicorn Wars becomes closer to a science fiction story that features alien conflict – and that could be equally laughable if you stop to think about it. There’s probably an argument to be made that Vázquez has sabotaged his own story by using these stupidly cute characters, but I’m not sure I agree. It feels like an argument that says you can’t make a film like this – a serious film – as animation full stop (and yes, it’s old-school cel animation here – in look, if not actual construction – rather than modern CGI) and that’s just silly.

And this is genuinely brutal, with massive body counts of disembowelled soldiers on both sides, carnage and brutality driving the story as it increasingly becomes a story of psychotic revenge and broken bodies reflecting broken minds. There are scenes of psychedelic tripping that leave characters devastated and which make the whole ‘magical forest’ aspect of the film suddenly a lot less cute than it first seemed – and the unicorns have a sinister edge that the film only hints at but which is caught in their transformation into killing machines, albeit in defence of their own land. War is hell and makes monsters of us all.

I suspect that the film’s sales pitch emphasised the comic absurdity over the grim brutality – certainly, all the publicity material including Mayhem’s own brochure write-up did – because that’s certainly the easier sell, even if it might put off as many people as it attracts. But believe me,  you won’t come away from this laughing. Vázquez is not playing around here and the film’s continual descent into a heart of darkness will probably prove a bit much for some people, especially if they have come to this expecting lightweight, cheesy comedy. The movie ends with a twist that combines the surreal with a sense of apocalyptic damnation, which is perhaps the only direction left for the film to go in, as the mythological characters destroy each other and make way for the next step in evolution. It’s audaciously unsettling and doom-laden – and it ensures that no one is going to come away from this sniggering at the contrived juxtaposition of the cute and the violent.

It took me a while to process what I’d just seen as I left the cinema and in truth, I’m still not sure what I make of it three days later. Impressive? Yes. Entertaining? Not exactly. Worth seeking out? Absolutely. I’m already looking forward to a second viewing to come to terms with the whole twisted and provocative experience.


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