Unicorns are woefully underrepresented in cartoons, at least when compared to the place they hold among the toys, binder art and imaginations of children. Teddy bears, on the other hand, are practically everywhere you look in animation — not that it’s ever been a contest before.
“Unicorn Wars” pits these two camps against one another in a brutal battle royal, featuring scene after scene of adorable teddies plotting to rid the world of the mythical horses, before erupting into a full-blown bloodbath. The visually striking, not-at-all-kid-friendly result is all kinds of wrong: Picture pastel-colored anime bears impaled on the horns of sleek black horses, backlit by raging hot-pink infernos. “The Care Bears” this ain’t, though the comparison can hardly be accidental with this ultra-graphic, Saturday morning cartoon-subverting satire for which irreverent Bronies may well be the ideal audience.
Branching out on his own after co-directing the cult indie offering “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children,” Spanish animator Alberto Vázquez is gunning for midnight-movie glory with this sick-and-twisted feature, which takes the cutesy carnage of “Happy Tree Friends” to “Heavy Metal” extremes. It’s all designed as a heavy-handed parable about the tactics that those in power use to brainwash and control the young and gullible, using a teddy bear boot camp where young recruits are taught to despise and fear the unknown as a metaphor for indoctrination of all forms.
“Death to the unicorn!” preaches an ursine priest with lilac fur, citing a prophecy that claims whoever drinks the blood of the last unicorn will become handsome and eternal. To reinforce these beliefs, the film presents a series of illuminated illustrations from the bears’ Sacred Book that explain how religion — though which they “gained knowledge, progress, morals and laws” — made the bears superior to the other animals.
They don’t seem any more advanced or enlightened to our eyes, however. If anything, audiences may find themselves rooting for the unicorns, to whom they’re introduced first in the film’s ominous opening vignette. There, we see a lone unicorn threatened by a boiling black mass. The gentle-natured animals are depicted throughout as elegant silhouettes, whereas the bear characters are more conventionally cartoony in appearance, with big round heads, exaggerated expressions and sparkly eyes — plus a few other anatomical surprises.
With names like Coco (the yellow one), Snuggle (green), and Bluey (guess which color he is), the bears are adorable, and they know it — which in turn makes them rather insufferable. Only Tubby, the husky pink recruit, has any modesty, fretting about his fat rolls and general lack of confidence. He and Bluey are brothers, though the latter is bitter beneath his cheery baby-blue exterior.
There are clues that Tubby could be gay, though Vázquez has coded the whole film (whose dominant colors are pink and purple) in slyly queer ways, as if to remind audiences of a time, before shame set in, when they were allowed to enjoy rainbows and unicorns and “girly” things. All the young bears are homophilic by nature, and boot camp is meant to bludgeon those tendencies out of their personalities. The privates all hug and kiss and flaunt their privates, while the more manly officers meet behind closed doors and agree that the entire company is expendable.
Tubby’s personality positions him as the one bear sensitive enough to resist their indoctrination and make friends with the unicorns. On the other paw, Bluey’s resentment (explained via irony-tinged flashbacks from his childhood) will make him a deranged warmonger capable of fulfilling the prophecy. At times, Vázquez seems to be a bit confused about who his protagonist is, alternating between the two brothers and a unicorn named Maria for a time, until the conflict erupts.
At this point, the movie delivers on the promise of its title, erupting into an extended, hyper-stylized battle sequence in which gruesome fates are delivered on these darling characters. Googly eyes are gouged out, unicorns decapitated and hundreds of heart-tipped arrows launched until the fields run with blood. Tonally, this finale is an abrupt shift from what’s come before, though Vázquez has been laying the groundwork all along with its aggressive and oddly sexualized banter. (There’s even a scene where the bears partake of a psychotropic glowworm, turning on one another while they’re tripping out.)
As the old song goes: If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise…. “Unicorn Wars” toys with the codes of cutie patootie children’s cartoons, while recognizing that as grown-ups, we’ve become too jaded to return to the simplicity they sell. But is this questionable-taste picnic any more enlightened, or just a crude parody of a super-easy target?
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