Unicorn Wars Review: A Gnarly Animated Film About The Horrors Of War Starring Cuddly Teddy Bears [Fantastic Fest]

What if "Happy Tree Friends" came back in 2022, but it was a gritty war film about the horrors of fascism and religious zealotry? You'd get something like "Unicorn Wars," a brutal, disturbing war film disguised as a candy-colored cartoon about cuddly teddy bears. Alberto Vázquez's sophomore feature, "Unicorn Wars," features fantastic animation and gorgeous use of color that is juxtaposed with some of the gnarliest imagery put to an animated film in over a decade. Sadly, it suffers from "short-turned-into-a-feature" syndrome, with flashbacks that feel unnecessary, repetitive scenes and plot beats, and a pacing that slows down in order to pad the runtime, before it picks back up with a guts-spilling, blood-soaking, nightmare-inducing climax. 

Alberto Vázquez is no stranger to using the (very stupid) assumption that animation is for kids to deliver dark and horrific adult animated movies. His feature debut, "Birdboy: The Forgotten Children," based on a short by Vásquez, itself adapted from his graphic novel, is a post-apocalyptic animated fantasy horror movie starring anthropomorphic animals trying to escape a post-apocalyptic island before getting involved in a horrific war. "Unicorn Wars" similarly combines colorful and childlike imagery in its tale of a world where teddy bears are engaged in an ancestral war against unicorns, whose blueberry-tasting blood holds the secret to eternal cuteness. 

Cute, but deadly

The film focuses on a group of teddy bear army recruits, particularly Bluey, his sensitive brother Tubby, and Bluey's "Top Gun" style rival, as they go through bootcamp before they are sent to a rescue mission to find missing comrades. Soon enough, things go to hell, and the bears encounter poisonous reptiles, hallucinogenic worms, angry primates, and lots of death, as they realize this is a war without winners nor cuteness.

"Unicorn Wars," much like "Birdboy: The Forgotten Children," has stunning animation that fits the story being told. Where "Birdboy" had a rougher, more hand-drawn look to reflect its world on the brink of destruction, "Unicorn Wars" looks cleaner and more polished, luring audiences with its cuddly look worthy of its teddy bear cast. The use of bright colors and picturesque backgrounds help sell a harmless, kid-friendly movie before the horror is unleashed. Like the excellent recent anime show "Ranking of Kings," Vázquez uses the medium of animation and its association with children's entertainment for contrast with the horrific story he is telling, the juxtaposition of cute teddy bears being mutilated and unicorns massacred part of the appear of the film.

And yet, though its premise could easily make for little more than a gimmick, a film with gnarly yet hilarious violent scenes and little else, "Unicorn Wars" aims for more. There are moments of absurd and very bleak comedy, but for the most part this is a war horror film, a "Bambi" meets " Apocalypse Now" exploration of fascism and religious zealotry that still features plenty of teddy bear penises and guts. Vázquez plays the war elements completely straight, hitting at some poignant commentary before cutting back to the teddy bear penises.

The short problem

If there's one major problem to this war campaign, it's that you can definitely tell "Unicorn Wars" started out as a short film. The pace slows down significantly during the second act and doesn't really recover until the very end of the film. Likewise, some of the character and plot beats get repetitive very fast, with Vázquez hitting the same notes over and over.

It still makes for an entertaining if disturbing film, but it was best served in short-form.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10