One of the ways that cinema can portray the end of innocence is to take things that would normally appeal to children and to infuse them with fear, distress or disgust. David Hand’s animated Bambi (1942) for Disney might have been very much aimed at children, but also traumatised many of its young viewers with the anguish of baby Bambi losing his mother to a hunter – and Marv Newland’s short animation Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969) crushed underfoot any cutesiness that might have remained. Then there is the whole killer doll subgenre, in which toys like Chucky, Annabelle or M3GAN turn murderous on their young owners, or the nightmarish sequence in Katsuhiro Otomo’s feature-length anime Akira (1988) where Tetsuo comes under hallucinatory attack from a teddy bear, a toy car and a stuffed rabbit, or the more recent trend in horror films like Daniela Esterhazy’s The Banana Splits Movie (2019), Kevin Lewis’ Willy’s Wonderland (2021) and Rhys Frake-Waterfield’s Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023) in which the iconic mascots of children’s literature or television are turned into figures of primal fear.
Unicorn Wars taps right into this tradition, opening – like Bambi – with a mother deer and her doe, before following frisky young unicorn María (voiced by Itxaso Quintana) as she playfully chases a Thumper-like rabbit through the trees and then heads into the improbably situated ruins of a church where, looking for her mother, María finds instead something dark, inchoate and evil starting to take form from the altar. Here we see both the Edenic Magic Forest, and a creepy building at its centre which, like the Biblical serpent in the trees (also here), signifies the seeds of Paradise’s eventual, inevitable unravelling. Already exiled from this idyll are the Teddy Bears, who despite their love of hearts, rainbows and blueberry pie, have been filled with poisonous propaganda by a Book brought from that church. Now they regard the reclusive unicorns as their implacable enemy, and are preparing for a Holy War to reclaim territory they believe to be theirs.
Written and directed by Alberto Vázquez with the same lysergic visuals and fairytale allegory that he brought to Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (2015), Unicorn Wars is built around a series of overt incongruities. As we watch these cute, cuddly bears with their cute, cuddly names becoming new recruits at Love Camp (a name simultaneously encapsulating these creatures’ big hearts, and also significantly found in the titles of several SSploitation flicks), being dehumanised by their basic training as though they were in Stanley Kubrick Full Metal Jacket (1987), and then going on their first recovery mission in the jungle, where they trip out on rainbow millipede juice in shades of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and draw their own first blood before engaging in gory massacres, murderous betrayals and even cannibalism as though not just in a Vietnam movie, but in one of the scuzzier ones like Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse (1980), Buddy Giovinazzo’s Combat Shock (1986) or J. Michael Muro’s Street Trash (1987). If these bears start out all sweetness and light, most of them will end up reduced to a rotten inner core of blood and guts.
The main characters here are Bluey (voiced by Jon Goiri) and Tubby (Jaione Insausti), fraternal twins who, like Cain and Abel, are at aggressive odds, as loving, kind Tubby is endlessly undermined by his jealous, selfish, power-hungry, psychotic brother – and their lifelong struggles, gradually revealed though flashbacks, show an innocence that was lost from even before birth. In his intense need for approval and authority, ‘Soldier Bluey’ will become a traitor, a zealot, a fascist, a hockey-masked mass murderer and a monster, even as generous, considerate, healing Tubby finds himself siding with the nature-loving unicorns. Yet much as the soldiers are mere ‘collateral damage’ in the political machinations of the top brass, both sides here are mere prey and playthings to a force – call it evolution, although its progressiveness is highly questionable – that will eventually engulf and overpower all, turning this idyll into a Holocaust, and transforming the last bear standing into… well, you’ll just have to watch to find out.
Certainly referencing Akira (with Bluey doubling as Tetsuo), as well as Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001) and especially Princess Mononoke (1997), and even near its end featuring a brief cameo from Winnie the Pooh (as cannon fodder in training), Vázquez’s animated film is a political parable of the seductive, corrupting allure of power, and the destructive, even self-destructive effect of Darwinian drives – with organised religion very much part of the problem. Here ultimately there is just one threat, awaited and worshipped by the elusive Simians, to the balanced ecosystem of the Magic Forest – and the final, bitter joke is on us. This is the bleakest of bleak satires, and if you show it to a child, they will emerge an adult, their original sin affirmed and their innocence forever lost.
strap: Alberto Vázquez’s animated (d)evolutionary allegory faces a group of cute teddy bears with their Vietnam and their Apocalypse
© Anton Bitel