A unicorn, Maria (Itxaso Quintana), wanders around a lush forest bursting at the seams with life, accentuated with vibrant greens and vivid pinks. Yet, as the unicorn seeks her mother, the forest transforms into hostile shades of black and red, and Maria only has moments to escape before a sludgy, dark mass emerges from the wreckage with a taste for blood.
This striking opening vignette is only an ominous warning of what is to come in “Unicorn Wars,” an animated film as idyllic as it is horrific. Depicting the utter destruction of war, the legacies of fascism, religious zealotry and the intimate relationship between two brothers who seem to be at odds, Alberto Vázquez’s “Unicorn Wars” isn’t for the faint of heart.
Locked in an ancestral war with the unicorns of the forest, the teddy bears desperately train to fulfill an ancient prophecy and usher in a new era of prosperity and victory. Two brothers — aggressive, determined Bluey (Jon Goirizelaia) and withdrawn, sensitive Tubby (Jaione Insausti) — are training at a rigorous boot camp that relishes in the humiliation and degradation of its recruits. As the brothers are sent off on their first combat mission in the magical forest, their increasingly strained relationship seems to be intrinsically tied to the war — and may very well determine its fate.
“Unicorn Wars” immediately stands out in how, despite openly critiquing the irrationality of war and the consequences of fascism, it sticks to rather universal symbols and creatures while still alluding to real-life conflicts. Unicorns and teddy bears don’t belong to any one culture, and by virtue of using such innocent creatures, the film only further emphasizes the absurdity of war. At one point, a teddy bear preaches about how only after the last unicorn is slain and its blood drunk could a new, prosperous era rush forth — the ludicrousness of this situation isn’t lost upon the audience. Whether it’s the religious zealotry or the all-encompassing violence of the military, the choice of cartoonish imagery only further aids the messaging of the film.
The fluctuation in temporality is incredibly important, if not occasionally difficult to keep up with. As the film alternates between the modern day and Bluey and Tubby’s childhood, it becomes clear that there is more to the flashbacks than simply providing context to the brother’s troubled relationship. Much like how the brothers are engaged in a war with the unicorns in the present, they have always been engaged in a war with each other — primarily for their mother’s love. Though at times impeding the pacing, these flashes to the past provide important moments that flesh out the brothers’ fraught dynamic.
Overarchingly, however, “Unicorn Wars” has enough subplots and narrative threads to give the impression that it bit off more than it could chew in its mere 80-minute runtime. Beyond the present-day war and the more symbolic battle between the brothers, there exists narratives about the destruction of nature and even an entire side plot about a group of simians and the evil idol they worship in their corner of the woods. While the film may leave much up to interpretation, it’s incredibly easy to feel disoriented as it progresses through its many storylines.
Nevertheless, “Unicorn Wars” is ultimately incredibly refreshing in its primary use of 2D animation, especially amid an industry shift toward 3D. Visually striking and stylistically gorgeous, the film mimics the human imperfections and expressiveness of paper illustration, marking it as a standout among its peers. There is a dynamic evolution of color and scenery as the narrative pushes forward as well — the forest and its surrounding areas are idyllic before the horrors of war destroy the environment and thrust the world into violent reds and scorched blacks.
“Unicorn Wars” takes a mesmerizing visual approach to its antiwar fable, underscoring the senselessness of violence through its use of cartoonish imagery. While the pacing isn’t always quite right and the movie incorporates so many plot points it doesn’t always know what to do with itself, it culminates in a triumphant, scathing critique of the legacies of fascism and barbarity.