Cuddles are Made of Steel, Blood, and Pain: Unicorn Wars (2023) - Reviewed


"Woe to he who drinks the blood of the last unicorn, for he will become a beautiful and eternal being, and thus God will return to paradise lost."

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (2015), Alberto Vázquez's previous feature-length animated film, was a tragic delight that juxtaposed cute visuals with dark themes. He uses a similar aesthetic with his newest film Unicorn Wars (2023), setting his sights on critiquing organized religion, war, and fascism.

The universe has no human beings and is instead populated with anthropomorphized animals. The main species at the top of the food chain are colorful teddy bears and inky black unicorns. Long ago, the teddy bears found a religious text in an abandoned church and developed their own civilization based on its tenets. The unicorns were more connected to nature and chose to live their own lives in the magical forest. Eventually, the bears decide to use the forest to expand on their industrialization, leading them to go to war with the unicorns who want to keep the forest pure and unsullied.

While the tone of the story is serious for the most part, Vázquez is keenly aware of how silly it looks when cute fuzzy teddy bears are doing war drills, and the first third of the film has a Care Bears meets Full Metal Jacket (1987) feel to it. There is also a hint of sexual fetishism peeping out from below the surface as the bears are highly into their looks and spend their off time sensually caressing each other (because you see, they are so cuddly-wuddly). Like Full Metal Jacket, there is a bear analogous to the Private Pyle character, an extra fluffy bear named Gordi, who is treated poorly by his peers. He is training with his twin brother Azulín, who harbors an intense jealousy towards Gordi and a sociopathic mean streak.

Unicorn Wars has gorgeous animation, a seamless mixture of 3D and 2D elements, and a solid visual style. The color palette has shades of Lisa Frank, and the stylized designs and backgrounds give it a unique look. Outside of the dark humor, the subject matter is bleak, with tons of blood and gore, and Vázquez pulls no punches in depicting the horrors of war. The plot moves quickly, and the narrative transitions from an anti-war film to an exploration of fascism, but not before it viciously tears apart religious zealotry. Gordi and Azulín are a metaphor for the Bible story of Cain and Abel, the brothers who introduced violence to humanity.

The middle of the film feels unfocused, as it takes some digressions that don't add to the story. One such digression is a rainbow-colored worm-induced psychedelic trip the bears have one night in the forest. While it doesn't add lore, it looks incredible and showcases fantastic art design and animation. As the story moves on to the climax, it starts to veer away from the literal and into the purely symbolic, and that might turn away or confuse some viewers, but it is like a shot to the gut philosophically. Humanity is love and violence in equal measure and is doomed to continue the cycle of destruction and renewal for all eternity.

--Michelle Kisner