Fantastic Fest 2022: UNICORN WARS Embraces Cuddly Carnage

War is (cute as) Hell

The battle over the Magic Forest rages between the militant, armed-to-the-teeth teddy bears and stealthy, deadly, armed-to-the-heads unicorns. Among the latest company to infiltrate Unicorn territory are Tubby and Bluey, brother bears caught in an estranged relationship that alternates between cuddly and cruel. Bluey’s everything you’d expect the perfect teddy bear soldier to be–ruthlessly good with weapons, never backing down from a challenge, and almost as gorgeous as the other bears (even if he hides bags under his eyes with makeup). Tubby is…none of the above. Shamed for his sagging appearance and how he slows down the group, he’s the troop punching bag even when he sticks up for others who fall under the same group’s cruelty. But their latest mission, to find a missing troop amidst the wilds of the Magic Forest, will bring out the best and worst of all the bears–leading to a brutal, bloody finish that will force them to reckon with their supposedly divine mission to eradicate Unicorns from the face of the Earth.

I may seem like an absolute madman praising the thematic gravitas of a bloody-as-hell film about teddy bears vs. unicorns, but sometimes you need such unhinged insanity to finally see the light. The sophomore feature from Birdboy: The Forgotten Children director Alberto Vásquez, Unicorn Wars puts the “Adult” in Adult Animation–it’s not just a crude and absurdly violent film, but it’s one that finds rich meaning in its mayhem, developing its nihilistic anti-war themes with maturity and gravitas that’s as memorable as it is unexpected.

Beginning with a mud-chewing opening act in teddy bear boot camp Camp Love (Motto: Honor, Pain, Cuddles), Unicorn Wars skewers the best tropes of grizzled war films with an unrestrained primary color gloss. Two goals seem to be key: to be the most badass bear of the camp (bonus points for arrows through unicorns’ necks) and to be the most beautiful bear of them all. This sets an incredible and outlandish dichotomy for Bluey and Tubby: to have the courage to be bloodthirsty and the confidence to look fabulous while doing so. With his natural charm, Bluey seems primed to be the vainest and most violent bear–while Tubby is immediately fodder for everyone’s rage.

And I haven’t even mentioned the other dueling characters who populate this bizarre world. There’s the zealous priest who believes in the divine mandate to slaughter unicorns butting heads with the drill sergeant who believes God can’t exist in the hell of the Magical Forest. There are the Cuddly-Wuddly twins who may be too cuddly-wuddly for comfort and the closeted bear who’s literally green with envy at everyone else’s attention. There’s room for every eyebrow-raising character in a pink and fluffy world that seems impeccably designed to not include such body-shaming, machismo-parading madness at all.

But the skill of Vásquez’s film is how it revels in the gross, bloody humor that you’d expect from its premise before unexpectedly shifting into something more mature and affecting. Especially after a bizarre trip sequence involving eating the entrails of cuddly caterpillars that leads to instances of fratricide and copious amounts of religious guilt, it isn’t long before Unicorn Wars delves into the horrors of war and how much these bears are capable of turning into beasts. Vazquez’s film is as bloody and shell-shocked as Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, with burning bodies, spilled guts, and limbs as far as the eye can see… with enough room for PTSD, drug addiction, and blob monsters that may be the harbinger of original evil. What’s more, Unicorn Wars treats all of these elements with utmost seriousness, because these are life-or-death stakes for these characters. Even in a setting as comedic as this, Vásquez suggests it would be a war crime for audiences to not treat them the same way.

All of this disturbing content takes place amidst lush, beautifully rendered backgrounds and character art, at once invoking the best of Miyazaki and Cartoon Saloon. Vásquez’s team has an incredible eye for detail, from the barbed wire of a Boot Camp to the rolling hills that lay beyond an intricately webbed forest. Unicorn Wars realizes that even the most beautiful and cuddly of settings can be home to sinister elements, from ants crawling along a toadstool to the rainbow rivulets of a limb that needs to be amputated, like an animated version of Blue Velvet. Such complexity is also imbued within Tubby and Bluey themselves, with pink-and-blue-tinted flashbacks that speak to the heart of decades of brotherly conflict and filial rage.

For all of this Technicolor depravity, Unicorn Wars manages by its end to impart a potential origin for our craving for violence, as well as a passionate plea to stamp it out at all costs. As its characters find themselves physically and psychologically transformed by war, they reckon with their place in the universe, their susceptibility to propaganda, and the hellish impact they have on destroying the beauty of nature. There’s a lot going on in this movie, but it’s dressed up in the sugariest of coatings in order to swallow bitter truths.

You can’t believe after a while you give such a damn about Tubby, Bluey, the Cuddly-Wuddly twins, and the rest of the troop, but against all discernible logic, you do. That speaks to the craft that’s on display in such an insane and insanely beautiful movie, one that recognizes that our inner children may be just as sadistic and violent as the most jaded combat veteran.

Unicorn Wars had its U.S. Premiere at Fantastic Fest. GKids has acquired the film for a 2023 theatrical release.

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