Horror is present in our daily life. We don’t have to scroll very far in our social media feeds to see images of famine, humanitarian crises, and armed conflict all around the world. No matter how hard we try, it’s very easy to become desensitized to the reality of human suffering. After all, our brains try their best to create an illusion of normalcy even with the knowledge of horror elsewhere in the world. Unicorn Wars, the latest film by Spanish writer and director Alberto Vázquez tries to break the illusion and reminds us of the horror of war by presenting it in an unusual context. And, while doing so, the film presents an interesting story about the role of religion in radicalization.
Presented as a mixture of Apocalypse Now and Bambi, the film takes us to a magical forest wonderland full of beautiful critters, majestic unicorns, and friendly-shaped bears. However, unlike your usual fairy tale, this land is immersed in an existential conflict: a war between Unicorns and Bears. The film follows Bluey and Tubby, two bear siblings that joined the army and are training to fight on the frontlines.
Unmotivated by his lack of progress and skill, Bluey struggles to adapt to his platoon. After an encounter with the Army priest, he becomes a devout believer of the bear’s religion. This belief centers the idea that the unicorns needed to be exterminated. Furthermore, it’s full of references to a promise: the bear who kills the last unicorn will become “eternal and beautiful”. This becomes Bluey’s life goal. However, things start going wrong during Bluey and Tubby’s platoon’s first mission in the forest. The young bears find that the reality of the war is not a fairytale. Instead, they meet rather a gory, gruesome, and horrifying reality that will push them to their limits and unleash demons inside their cuddly appearance.
Audiences don’t have to look very far to see that the film has a profound anti-war message. The atrocities that the bears witness break the reality of the fairytale world. The cute appearance of the characters doesn’t limit the film. It depicts the gore and violence they see, and often inflict very (very) graphically. This serves as a reminder of the reality of human suffering in the armed conflicts around the world .
Sunday cartoons meet the battlefield
This is further achieved by a stellar animation that creates striking contrasts with a variety of styles. For instance, the bears resemble Sunday cartoons (think Care Bears). Seeing them covered in blood is never not shocking. Nevertheless, the rest of the forest is drawn with beautiful impressionistic backgrounds. In addition, the unicorns, are portrayed with a majestic monochrome style that blurs the line between 2D and 3D, making for one of the highlights of the film.
The distinct animation styles also speak to the degree of detachment from reality of the characters. Early on, the film, reveals that the conflict is rather one-sided. The cartoon-looking Bears want to take control of the forest, where the unicorns live peacefully. They are the instigators of the war and are motivated by the army’s manipulative religious narrative. Their cartoonish style stands in contrast with the rest of the beautifully animated forest. The film is showing their disconnection from the reality.
Besides its anti-war commentary, the film seeks to criticize the way religious narratives are used for political purposes. This is no surprise, as this was a prevalent issue during the Spanish Civil War. Then, the Catholic Church famously sided with Dictator Francisco Franco. Unicorn Wars is not the only recent Spanish piece of media dealing with the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, with the recent HBOMax series GARCIA! did the same. Yet, the film is not as effective in this critique.
Unicorn Wars actively tells audiences that religion is playing a role in the horrors of the war. It constantly reminds us of the inflammatory rhetoric the bears listen and even shows us their sacred book with medieval-like illustrations multiple times. However, it doesn’t develop the world enough to show the mechanisms that further solidify the bear’s radicalization. Moreover, the odd pacing of the second half and the combination of additional backstory with the Apocalypse Now-like arc of Bluey, brilliantly portrayed by Jon Goirizelaia, makes it unclear whether this was indeed a story of religious radicalization or whether Bluey is rotten from the start.
Despite this, Unicorn Wars is a fascinating story about the horrors of war and another beautifully animated film by Vazquez that is worth checking out, if you can stomach all the bear guts.
Unicorn Wars is available on digital and in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Featured Image Courtesy of GKids
Unicorn Wars - 7.5/10