A scene from “Unicorn Wars,” screening Friday at Space. Courtesy of Abano Producions/GKIDS

The great director François Truffaut famously said, “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” Truffaut was talking about the inevitably entertaining spectacle of the big-screen undertaking undermining any message suggesting that war isn’t an exciting spectator sport. And I get that – when people talk about their favorite war films, it’s usually one centered around action – say what you want about the horrors of WWII so meticulously orchestrated by master filmmaker Steven Spielberg, but that opening D-Day sequence in “Saving Private Ryan,” for all its blood and guts, is just damned thrilling filmmaking.

So what if you swap out human soldiers for impossibly adorable teddy bears? And have them violently battling armies of unicorns? In a magical forest dappled with lovingly animated foliage awash in rainbow colors and scampering woodland critters? Would the “war is hell” message come across then?

Honestly, my answer is, um, maybe, after watching Spanish writer-director Alberto Vázquez’s completely bananas animated 2022 feature “Unicorn Wars,” which is playing at Portland’s Space on Friday. Local indie film booking hero Greg Jamie introduced me to “Unicorn Wars” via an email, the helpful screening link accompanied by the ominously enticing single line, “Must be seen to be believed.” Well, I’ve seen, and I’m still not entirely sure I believe what I just saw.

“Unicorn Wars” sees a teddy bear kingdom mobilizing its all-cuddly army of exquisitely adorable bear soldiers to battle the mysterious unicorns that live in the magical forest. Two twin bear brothers, Bluey and Tubby, form the heart of the film’s drama, as their lifelong rivalry (and one particularly shocking secret, only revealed midway through the film) informs their time at teddy bear boot camp. Their hard-ass bear instructor puts the cute little soldiers through very real drills, even if their weapons are bows with heart-shaped arrows and suitably tiny knives. Meanwhile, in the forest, a young unicorn searches for her missing mother, discovering something unspeakable in the ruins of an old church guarded by hostilely curious monkeys.

When the bears are sent by their imperious officers to discover the fate of a missing teddy bear squadron, the unprepared teddies discover perils in the form of everything from poisonous lizards to adorably hallucinogenic worm-creatures (cue extended teddy bear trip sequence), all while their resident teddy bear chaplain fills the squad with propagandistic tales of the unicorn menace from his holy book. In their pre-mission religious service, the priest leads them all in a hymn repeating, “Good unicorn, dead unicorn,” while one officer reminds his colleague, “A person without hatred can never defeat the enemy, Colonel Fluffy.” Vázquez paints a portrait of war as a calculated plot made up of equal parts fascism, xenophobia, manipulation and indoctrination, all enacted by characters who wouldn’t look out of place on a children’s show.

When the horrors come – and boy, do they come – “Unicorn Wars” plays out like the darkest of war films while never abandoning its kids’ movie aesthetic. Here’s where I try to make sense of the queasy feelings this juxtaposition causes in me. It’s like “Apocalypse Now” crossed with “Bambi.” It’s like “Platoon” acted out by the Care Bears. It’s a Miyazaki film hijacked by “Full Metal Jacket.” When the final battle comes, the slaughter is total, while the final confrontation between Tubby and Bluey Bear plays out like epic tragedy. (Bluey’s mid-film transformation suggests nothing less than Anniakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side.)


In short, “Unicorn Wars” is one of the damnedest things I’ve ever seen.

The point of using such cute and cuddly characters in a story so dark and ugly is to heighten the horror by drawing on our cultural associations. Unicorns and teddy bears, animated fluffballs with silly voices – growing up with our stuffed animals and our beloved Disney movies on VHS, there’s a chemical response triggered inside us. And when Vázquez mercilessly but skillfully plants these signifiers of childhood innocence in a story depicting the very adult forces behind everything from war to racism to jealousy, terror and grief, it’s a shock to the system.

Other filmmakers have done this, to different effects. Peter Jackson’s utterly bonkers 1989 film “Meet the Feebles” subjects our nervous systems to a world where the Muppets are sexually rapacious, violent, drug-addled psychopaths, mainly because the cheeky young Peter Jackson was really into shocking people. Jimmy Murikami’s 1986 animated film “When the Wind Blows,” based on the graphic novel by “The Snowman’s” Raymond Briggs, employs a homey animation style to the tale of a nice old British couple whose unthinking faith in their government is slowly eroded by the creeping depredations of an England after a nuclear war. On the page, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” depicts the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust as experienced by mice and other household creatures.

There are so many well-intentioned movies out there that earnestly attempt to change people’s minds about the nature and futility of war. Some are good, some are prosaic, some are masterpieces. War never actually stops, not for a moment. As “Unicorn Wars’ ” enigmatic ending hints, perhaps there’s something in the human animal that simply craves war. Maybe it’s just who we are, and all the moving, epic, poetically written films trying to talk us out of our warlike nature is all just so much unspooled celluloid.

So maybe the answer is in finding that primal, chemical revulsion we felt as children when we saw or imagined our imaginary friends and colorful, huge-eyed mascots in danger. Maybe by throwing those avatars of innocence into a meat-grinder of stylized but all too recognizable combat, Vázquez hopes to trigger that childlike gag reflex to circumvent our grownup rationalizations for why someone different from us has to die. An end-run around our browbeaten willingness to accept the bloody status quo via our most primal love of the sweet and adorable and magical. I dunno. It’s worth a shot, I suppose.

“Unicorn Wars” is playing at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland, at 7 p.m. Friday. The film is 92 mystifyingly strange and violent minutes and would be rated R.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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