The final screening of this year’s rather wonderful Manchester Animation Festival, suitably apocalyptic in theme, ensures that it goes out with a bang. Disappointingly, however, there’s only a smattering of attendees left to tread the Lovecraftian weave of the Odeon’s period carpet before taking up their last posts in its well-worn claret seats, like the last stragglers at a party far removed from the under-dressed revelry parading Deansgate’s nearby strip. The reward for the doggedness of their devotion is a film that is nothing if not singular.

Idiosyncratic it may be, but in some respects Unicorn Wars harks back to the animations which have their roots in the counter-culture of the late 1960s, exemplified best by Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz The Cat, itself based on the comic strips of self-loathing misanthrope,  R. Crumb. Like that film, it derives a deal of its transgressive powers from placing its ‘funny animal’ protagonists, more usually associated with children’s entertainment, into distinctly adult situations. For Fritz, the backdrop was fornication and racial tension, in Unicorn Wars it is fundamentalist conflict.

Writer/director Alberto Vazquez sets his stage with a painterly prologue, evoking the collective Disney consciousness by entwining the sun-dappled forest of Bambi with the darker elements of King Louis’ temple in The Jungle Book, the former element constituting the calm, and the latter the coming storm, as, to a shrieking chorus of ape-like creatures, a shapeless darkness awakens, orphaning a unicorn foal.

Into this milieu he then parachutes his teddy bear protagonists. Two-dimensional, pastel hued, and with the head-to-body ratio of toddlers, they are Care Bears in all but branding, down to the cuteness of their names. All the same, it’s hard to imagine the likes of Funshine Bear and Wish Bear being forced through military training, even if the garrison in which they are drilled is called ‘Camp Love’, and the motto over its gates reads ‘Honor (sic), Pain, Cuddles’.

It soon becomes clear that, cartoon appeal or not, these bears are built from very different stuffing than their greetings card-fostered cousins. In a story with more than one nod to The Bible, its arc is defined by the Cain and Abel-like dizygotic twins, Bluey and Tubby. The mark of Cain is borne by the baby blue brother, his bitterness rooted in a nursery crime, and marked out from the first by his accusing his rose-coloured sibling of wetting a bed soiled with his own urine. Tubby, the mother’s boy to Bluey’s father’s son, is more kindly in his nature, a bear who actually does care.

Their basic training completed, they and their platoon are dispatched by the officer classes in the full expectation that they will become ‘collateral damage’. Chaperoned by a padre pious to the point of unholy imperturbability, their flat colours and anthropomorphic bodies mark them as being conspicuously out of place as they clumsily penetrate into the forest’s heart of darkness, ready prey to infection and drug-bug-induced psychoses.

Not all of them will emerge, and those that survive are changed irretrievably by their experiences. Bluey, in particular, having witnessed the horrors endured by Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, is consumed by his own rancour, so that it is he, masked and caped like a conflation of the Nazi’s Superman with that of Siegel and Shuster, who begins the last Crusade against the unicorns in earnest, while Tubby fosters the wounded unicorn foal in a temporary sanctuary behind the concealing curtain of a waterfall.

Not quite a revelation, Unicorn Wars is nonetheless a horse of a very different colour. For all that the moral of its allegory is a familiar one, clad in the softest plush, its concealed barbs ultimately succeed in getting under the skin.

By Desmond Bullen


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