Spanish director Alberto Vazquez’s anthropomorphic animals call to mind fairy-tale illustrations and animation classics — except Vazquez’s animated unicorns and teddy bears engage in gruesome acts that reveal the worst of human nature.
“I like to inhabit this intermediate space where you don’t know if it’s for children or if it’s actually for adults—but it’s also not for all adults,” said Vazquez on a recent video call.
Vazquez’s sophomore feature, the Goya Award-winning “Unicorn Wars,” hits U.S. theaters March 10. He defines this latest brainchild as an amalgamation between “Apocalypse Now,” Disney’s “Bambi,’ and the Bible.
The dark fantasy maps a holy war between bears and unicorns over the control of a sacred forest. At the center of the larger conflict are bear brothers Bluey and Tubby (Azulín and Gordi in Spanish), part of a group of young soldiers in training before embarking on a dangerous mission. Early on, one bear stabs his brother to death during a drug-induced frenzy. Later, another gets a leg savagely amputated. And for the final clash, the two factions slaughter each other mercilessly, with the bears impaled on unicorn horns and their enemies blown to pieces and beheaded by heavy artillery.
Initially a short comic titled “Unicorn Blood” (“Sangre de unicornio”), Vazquez adapted the drawings into an acclaimed 2013 short film, done in watercolors, about the two brothers hunting the horned horses. Back then, the aim was to discuss the effects of bullying. But when he expanded the short into a feature, Vazquez introduced a larger religious mythology and gave Bluey (voiced by Jon Goirizelaia) — a narcissist fueled by envy and resentment — an arc of terrifying transformation to address the origin of human evil.
“We see the story through the eyes of this villain, and that makes the audience uncomfortable because he is such a malevolent character,” explained Vazquez. That uneasiness is intensified by the explicit violence the deceitfully cute platoon of round-faced bears commits throughout, as well as their sharp tongues that spare no profanity.
“Animation allows me to bypass censorship,” he noted. “This is a movie that could only be done in animation. It would be madness in live-action because there’s even cannibalism!”
In “Unicorn Wars,” the unicorns and forest animals are female — representing the healing power of nature — while the bears are mostly male, symbolizing the “destructive power of mankind,” Vazquez explained.
The divide between these two forces is markedly expressed in the character design. Distinguished by colors and named after simple adjectives (not unlike the Care Bears), the bears have a more whimsical, hand-drawn look while the unicorns were brought to life in 3DCG, resembling the 1920s animation by German pioneer Lotte Reiniger, best-known for “The Adventures of Prince Achmed.”
“It’s a different representation of unicorns, opposed to the typical depiction where they are white and benevolent beings,” said Vazquez. “These unicorns are wild animals, and they don’t think twice about killing the little bears if they feel threatened.”
As deliberately ghastly as “Unicorn Wars” is, the filmmaker always envisioned it as an anti-war movie, in the same manner as the British animated drama “When the Wind Blows,” one of Vazquez’s favorite films. Through the bluntness of their images, both films denounce the horror and senselessness of armed conflicts.
“All empires and all nations have their narratives to justify the wars,” he noted. “The little bears even have their own sacred book that’s a parody of the Old Testament, which fascinates me because it has a vengeful God, and there is no shortage of cruelty.”
Although the director is not a practicing Catholic, he admits parts of the dogma remain instilled in his subconscious. Vazquez attended Catholic school as a child and recalls watching the 1980s animated show “Superbook,” which retold Old Testament parables. That’s where’s Vazquez developed an interest in religious art and religion as a tool for control, a theme that runs throughout “Unicorn Wars.”
Vazquez has always derived inspiration for his art from chapters of his personal history, filtered through his mordant imagination. For his debut feature, “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” (“Psiconautas, los niños olvidados”), a post-apocalyptic narrative centered on a drug-addicted outcast, the hardships afflicting his native Galicia served as the main reference.
From the onset, Vazquez intended to sublimate his recollections about where he grew up, which in the 1980s suffered a steep economic decline and became the gateway for illegal substances to enter Europe, into an eccentric fable with talking animals.
“I witnessed how a generation of young people fell into the grasp of heroin addiction,” he said. “I also wanted to talk about the deindustrialization of northern Spain, where I live.”
Vazquez recalls that the practical demands on “Birdboy,” produced for under $1 million with a minuscule team, landed him in the hospital with cardiac issues. On “Unicorn Wars,” with three times the budget and the support of multiple television networks, he could hire more artists and delegate responsibilities.
“I keep on learning because I didn’t study animation nor filmmaking. I’ve learned from other people,” Vazquez said. “I’m an illustrator and a storyteller, but there are things I don’t know how to do because animation is very complex work with a lot of industrial aspects.”
A four-time Goya Award winner, Vazquez is optimistic about the future of animation in Spain, where more than half a dozen locally produced features will be released this year, but concerned about the avenues of distribution for movies like his in a troubled theatrical market.
Uncertainty notwithstanding, he is already in the early stages of development for his third feature, adapted from his award-winning short film “Decorado.” The original black-and-white short sees another collection of his signature cuddly protagonist in sordid vignettes that explore piercingly existential preoccupations.
“Through these fantastical universes, I speak about very human and very contemporary topics, and that’s a key part of what gives meaning to my cinema,” said Vazquez.