Grin and Bear It: Alberto Vázquez on the cuddly terror of Unicorn Wars

A tour of duty in Unicorn Wars brings many strange sights.  — Credit… GKIDS
A tour of duty in Unicorn Wars brings many strange sights.  Credit… GKIDS

Unicorn Wars director Alberto Vázquez explains the bloody military mayhem of his Bambi-meets-Apocalypse Now war-epic, forest-survival movies, and working with friends.

I’m always interested in working with anthropomorphic animals. They feel universal, timeless, and relatable as well. 

—⁠Alberto Vázquez 

Bear witness to Unicorn Wars, a harsh and bloody anti-war film told from the perspective of cute, heavily indoctrinated teddies in a war against those mythical horses. The war is presented as a righteous one by the bears’ leaders and religious figureheads, but is in fact a simple resource grab. 

Out on digital VOD this month, Unicorn Wars follows bear cub cadets as they train for their mission: two brothers join a group of inexperienced soldiers all about to be sent off to a horrifying war front in the Magic Forest. Dubbed “total nihilism in psychedlic rainbow hues” by Letterboxd member Charles Reece, the combat chiller landed in twentieth position on the official top 50 horror films of 2022 after festival screenings and a Spanish release. 

“I’m so happy the characters were teddy bears cause I would’ve been fucking terrified otherwise,” writes Jules. Others have made comparisons to explain the stark contrasts at play, with Guibob stating: “It was like watching Happy Tree Friends [crossed] with the war chapter in the game Conker’s Bad Fur Day”; and Michelle writing that “the first third of the film has a Care Bears meets Full Metal Jacket (1987) feel to it.”

Azulin, Gordi and company have unicorns in their sights.  — Credit… GKIDS
Azulin, Gordi and company have unicorns in their sights.  Credit… GKIDS

Such contrast is a signature of Galician director Alberto Vázquez, who previously made a visually striking anti-war story in the short film Homeless Home (which won a jury award at Annecy—you can watch it online here) as well as the 2015 feature, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, a similarly macabre adaptation of his own comic work and subsequent short film. The filmmaker’s work has earned him three Goya awards in Spain alone, including this year’s Goya for best animated feature film for Unicorn Wars.  

Much of the cartoonist and filmmaker’s work in animation is told through the visages of cutesy animal characters, perhaps in some kind of deference to Watership Down (one film that he brings up among those that left a lasting impact on him), or a subversion of the Disney pictures of his youth. I spoke to Vázquez (via a translator) about making Apocalypse Now for cartoon teddy bears, his early inspirations and learning on the job. 

I was excited to find out you started as an artist creating comic books first. What drew you towards being a cartoonist, and then towards being a director of animation?
Alberto Vázquez: As an animator in the comic world, it’s a very direct world. It was only me working, mainly, so that allowed me to develop my own voice. I discovered that through fantasy, I could touch adult themes, talk about adult stories—also, through working in the illustration world for books, I kept growing into more adult themes that I would bring into my work as a filmmaker later on.

All the lessons that I could learn from the comic books, from illustrated books, I could bring them here. My team, producers, were able also to see that and allow me to keep working on them, to keep developing them, and support me in this new animation world. I’m lucky to keep working, because animation for me is the midpoint between my two main passions: film and comics. 

Not just a children’s medium: Unicorn Wars has a 16+ recommendation on Commonsense Media. — Credit… GKIDS
Not just a children’s medium: Unicorn Wars has a 16+ recommendation on Commonsense Media. Credit… GKIDS

Speaking of adult stories: at least in the UK and in the United States, there’s a lot of discussion at the moment about how animation is perceived as a children’s medium (which I don’t think is true). I was wondering if that discussion had anything to do with the presentation of Unicorn Wars, with these very childish, storybook-looking characters played through this very violent lens.
Animation is a storytelling medium for everyone, and it also includes every single genre. It’s incredible the number of genres that you can touch with animation as well. Since I enjoy adult themes in the movies I like to watch, that’s why I try to focus on them as a storyteller; when I tell a story, I try to talk to you as a big brother, as a friend—hopefully not like your father telling you what to do. 

With that in mind, say, talking about the films that you admired, were there any particular anti-war films that you were thinking about when you were making Unicorn Wars?
I always wanted to do a war movie: my main influences for those have always been Apocalypse Now, Come and See, and Platoon. I also like those forest survival movies, in that the characters do reprehensible things that recur in the modern world. Movies like Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypto, for example.

It’s like a jungle sometimes: Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. 
It’s like a jungle sometimes: Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now

What first inspired the decision to portray these armies as cute and cuddly on the outside?
I was aiming to create clear contrasts in this film, partly for the sake of the horror and comedy,  but also for him to focus on the two wars happening at the same time: the external war, the teddy bears against the unicorns in the forest, and the internal war, which is the two brothers fighting for the love of their mother. They become something very cruel, and I wanted to explore that. I’m always interested in working with anthropomorphic animals, they feel universal, timeless, and relatable as well. For me, from the look alone you don’t know if this movie was made in Japan, in France, or in Spain. 

Like if Mickey Mouse went to war! That does actually bring me onto the look of the film and how you went about making it. The unicorns themselves and how different they looked stood out to me. Could you talk me through their creation?
I wanted to show the differences between the teddy bear world and the forest animals world. In the teddy bear world they have a wide range of colors but minimalist design, and in the forest world where the animals reside, things are a little bit more naturalistic. The unicorns were made using 3D animation, but you can see how they were graphically animated as well. I like using silhouettes because it gives the unicorns a mysterious touch with a dark point, which is far from the usual way these animals, these creatures have always been described, animated or done or portrayed. 

The use of 3D also responds to a need in the budget, because if you pay attention to the final battle, the final battle is ten minutes long and you have, sometimes, 30 unicorns fighting in the war at the same time. If you were going to do traditional animation, that would have been way more expensive than using 3D.

Silhouette “gives the unicorns a mysterious touch.” —Alberto Vázquez — Credit… GKIDS
Silhouette “gives the unicorns a mysterious touch.” —Alberto Vázquez Credit… GKIDS

Like you said, when working on comic books, you have very direct input on these sorts of things, and I imagine it’s maybe easier to wrangle larger scenes together within a panel than it is across hundreds of storyboards and drawings and so on. I was wondering how you handled the change in scale between authoring a comic book and directing a film.
I’m always learning. They are ways of graphically telling a story, but they have nothing in common. For example, in my experience the comic book world is a cheaper world that relies more heavily on you specifically—it’s you with your pencil, telling a story and illustrating it. Then the films, it’s such a different workload. You need a bigger budget, you have bigger needs, right? Longer deadlines, et cetera. 

I’ve been doing animation for eleven years, and it’s always a lesson for me. I always learn from my team, the animators, the artists that surround me, I have to take all that in, in order to keep growing. I try to always be surrounded by a team of friends that I’ve been developing through all these years, because they also support me and that’s important. I sort of consider myself an amateur still nowadays, even, especially when I’m facing a new project, because every project is different and there’s always something to keep learning. As an example, in my previous movie, Birdboy, we were able to change softwares—before, we used Adobe Animate. With this, we used Blender.

“You’d almost think this was Come and See with rabbits.” —Logan B. Anderson
“You’d almost think this was Come and See with rabbits.” —Logan B. Anderson

Was there a particular film that made you want to become a filmmaker? 
Oh! The classic Disney film, Fantasia. My Neighbors the Yamadas by Isao Takahata. Chihiro’s Journey—of course, Miyazaki! I was also interested in films like Barefoot Gen or Watership Down. That and things like Ingmar Bergman films or Haneke, Todd Solondz or Robert Aldrich, Billy Wilder or Lars von Trier. 

You loving Watership Down makes a lot of sense to me.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah.

What do you think was the earliest animated movie you saw? Was it Fantasia or was that just one that stuck with you?
It was probably Bambi. Bambi’s the first I remember.

Could you pick your four favorites? 
Okay. My favorite films. Lars von Trier, Antichrist. Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard. Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened To Baby Jane. Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal.

Which of those do you think you’ve watched the most?
That’s very difficult! I think Sunset Boulevard is perhaps my favorite.

Unicorn Wars’ is screening in select US cinemas and on VOD nationwide via GKIDs. 

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