Watching Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, the latest creation from acclaimed animator-director Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Primal), in the media landscape of 2023 feels about as miraculous as seeing an actual unicorn grazing in a parking lot. In an era defined by sequels and reboots, spin-offs and reimaginings, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal is that all too precious rarity: a genuinely original animated series with no ties to any existing franchise, a passion project conceived by one of the most preeminent creators working in American animation today. Even Tartakovsky feels like it’s a small miracle it’s finally here.
“For me, it’s a new type of storytelling,” Tartakovsky told Polygon over Zoom. “It’s everything that I’ve kind of trained for throughout the years, doing all these different shows, culminating into this one thing.”
While Tartakovsky has established a reputation for creating animation that’s as conceptually ambitious as it is visually idiosyncratic, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal represents a new challenge for the veteran director through its emphasis on emotional storytelling. “With every project I’ve learned more and with every project I hope I’m getting better at telling stories,” Tartakovsky says. “It took awhile, but by the time we got here and somebody finally bought it, I felt like Oh, now it’s fate; it’s destiny because I never gave up on it.”
The production of Unicorn: Warriors Eternal dates back as early as Tartakovsky’s time working on Samurai Jack at Cartoon Network Studios, over 20 years ago.
“It started around the end of Jack and Clone Wars,” Tartakovsky says. “I was thinking about what’s next for me. I wanted to break away from the graphic look; that very flat, stylized aesthetic of Dexter, PowerPuff Girls, and Samurai Jack. I wanted to do something more volumetric.” Around the same time, Tartakovsky was tapped to write and direct an unproduced animated feature based on Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka’s iconic sci-fi boy robot. The experience of working on that film fed directly into Tartakovsky’s thought process on Unicorn: Warriors Eternal.
Darrick Bachman, the head writer for Unicorn: Warriors Eternal and a long-time collaborator of Tartakovsky’s, has his own recollections as to when the series was first conceived. “He had just shown me Howl’s Moving Castle, which had just come out, and he loves Castle in the Sky,” Bachman told Polygon. “We both thought there was something amazing about that Victorian style world. We were sitting in his office and he was just doodling this early version of Copernicus, just something he had in his head when he went home that night. The next morning, he just showed me this sketchbook full of images he drew and told me about this rough idea he had about warriors who are repeatedly reincarnated throughout time. It was really, really fascinating. We just started throwing around ideas and yeah, I think that was literally 20 years ago.”
The influence of Hayao Miyazaki, Max Fleischer, and Osamu Tezuka is plain to see in Unicorn: Warriors Eternal: a sci-fi fantasy adventure centering on a trio of immortal warriors – Melinda, a powerful sorceress; Seng; a cosmic monk with the ability to traverse the astral plane of existence; and Edred, an Elven warrior prince and Melinda’s lover. Together, the warriors battle against a primordial force of evil across space and time, reincarnated from generation to generation by their robotic comrade Copernicus in their mission to safeguard humanity.
If that premise sounds uncannily like the 2003 Samurai Jack episode “Birth of Evil” by way of 2010’s Sym-Bionic Titan, it’s not a coincidence. For Tartakovsky, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal represents nothing short of the culmination of his career as an animator and director up to this point. But aside from those influences and the arc of his own career, Tartakovsky says he drew on his own personal experiences as a father watching his children grow up in the creation of Unicorn: Warriors Eternal.
“So I was trying to sell it for years, and in that time I had three kids,” Tartakovsky tells Polygon. “And what I really witnessed was the kids growing from kids to teenagers, teenagers to adults. All of a sudden, your baby daughter is 12, and then she’s 13 and she’s a completely different person. That’s amazing to me, and that connected right into what I was doing with Unicorn. Because the story is just a big metaphor for change, of finding out who you are through change.”
Nowhere is this theme of change more apparent than in the case of Emma, a young bride-to-be living in Victorian era London who unexpectedly discovers that she is the reincarnation of Melinda. As the series’ protagonist, Emma struggles not only to control the extraordinary new powers foisted onto her, but with the tension that comes with reconciling her past self (as well as her past lives) with who and what she is now.
“Going through life, you constantly question who you are,” Tartakovsky tells Polygon. “And as you grow, you begin to ask: Am I growing into the person that I want to be or am I growing into something less than what I want to be? Am I unhappy with how I’m growing?”
For the director of Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, that question also taps into his experiences as an animator making their way through Hollywood.
“Hollywood is kind of screwy with some of the characters we run into,” Tartakovsky says. “As I got into Hollywood, there was all this craziness around me, and so I started to question myself. There were times I tried to be more than myself so that people would go, ‘Wow, look at Genndy, he’s so creative and out of his mind,’ and I hated it because it wasn’t sincere to who I was. It also comes from being a comic book fan, that question of what do you do and what are your responsibilities now after getting these new powers. All of that went into Unicorn; I’m never outside of myself, I’m always trying to be sincere in my storytelling and not just putting cliche stuff just because it feels like that’s what needs to be there.”
Despite, or perhaps unfortunately because of the novelty of Tartakovsky’s vision, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal was a difficult series to land for studios otherwise obsessed with the reliable bankability of existing franchises. “He’s pitched it many, many times since he first came up with the idea,” Bachman told Polygon. “We had talked about this, and it’s always there; it always kind of percolates itself back to the top.”
From Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, Netflix and HBO Max, the series went through multiple phases of pitching and pre-production, each one either thwarted by disinterest on part of studios or preexisting obligations to other projects. “I think there’s like, about four different versions of the show that have existed up to this point,” Bachman says. “It’s kind of like the team, it just keeps on getting reborn over and over.”
One aspect that’s remained a constant throughout Unicorn: Warriors Eternal’s development is the setting: An alternate version of 19th century London filled with semi-sentient automatons, flying dirigibles, and fantastical gas-powered technology. For Bachman, the appeal of the series’ Steampunk setting is attributable to what it represents to audiences engaging with it in the modern era.
“I think it’s because it’s the birth of modern technology,” Bachman says. “It’s a time when so many different forms of technology: the combustion engine, refrigeration, high-speed rail travel, and indoor heating became a part of our everyday lives. People were so enamored with the idea of the future, and now we look at it as the past and beginnings of the modern conveniences of our technological present. There’s a romance to it.”
It’s taken nearly 20 years for Unicorn: Warriors Eternal to finally come to television screens, and now that it finally has, Tartakovsky has plans for more stories following the many adventures of Melinda, Seng, and Edred throughout history.
“It’s a gigantic world, it’s designed as a big franchise,” Tartakovsky says. “We could go to the future, we could go to the Middle Ages. There’s another story that lines up right next to it, it’s just that this one has to be successful before we can do that next one.”
In his conversation with Polygon, Bachman floated the potential of future storylines exploring a steampunk version of 1920s Chicago. “That would be an awesome era to explore because Genndy lived in Chicago and I love that Roaring ’20s aesthetic. And I’d love to be able to explore across Europe, you know, this fantasy version of Europe and into Asia and the Middle East. It would be amazing to be able to play with the terrains of those different locations.”
Whatever the future might hold for Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, Tartakovsky remains committed to pushing not only the boundaries of what audiences expect from him as a creator, but his own artistic aspirations. “I do want to push myself,” Tartakovsky says. “Even going from Samurai to Primal, I was like, OK, he’s not going to have any sword action; the fight has to be in a caveman style and he’s going to rely on a spear. I don’t want to repeat what I’ve done before.”
Unicorn: Warriors Eternal is available to watch and stream weekly on Adult Swim and HBO Max.