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Genndy Tartakovsky is a creative that needs no introduction. His work in the animation industry has not only influenced many fellow creatives but also generated some of the best animated television shows on American TV. From his first TV production, Dexter’s Laboratory to his most recent, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal, he continues to not only grow as an artist with stronger staging and storytelling but also to continue to evolve his work and not remain stagnant with a single formula. Genndy’s style is never the same from one show to the next and his newest series, Unicorn Warriors Eternal, is no different. Announced back in 2020 for Cartoon Network and HBO Max, little was known about the series other than it was a “supernatural animated series inspired by myths and lore from across the globe” and the series “follows a team of ancient heroes as they work together to protect the world from an unforeseen and ominous force.” While the show’s announcement to the general public was in 2020, Unicorn started life all the way back when Genndy was still working at Hanna-Barbera Studios (which would then undergo a name change to Cartoon Network Studios). He pitched the series to his bosses at that time, but they apparently weren’t interested in the project. They did, however, end up green lighting an action series from him, the critically acclaimed series Samurai Jack. Unicorn would experience a moment of uncertainty as Genndy was hearing that, “we might be on the bad list,” referring to the heavy cuts being made throughout Warner Bros. Discover in 2022. Perhaps it was a case of current Adult Swim and Cartoon Network president Michael Ouweleen and Warner Brothers Animation president Sam Register fighting to keep the project on schedule to air, or maybe the head executives above both of them saw potential in the project and decided to move forward instead of just canceling it and writing it off. Regardless, it’s here now, although not on Cartoon Network, where it was originally intended to air as part of the ACME Night Block. Instead, it is airing as part of Adult Swim, with episodes premiering every Thursday night. The good news is that this isn’t a reason for doom and gloom as Adult Swim has been more welcoming to more action animation as of late, especially thanks to the Toonami programming block, which has both re-aired and premiered various new action cartoons over the past decade, including shows made by Genndy (Sym-Bionic Titan and Samurai Jack seasons 1-5). Judging by the reception to Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal, another series that ran on weeknights on Adult Swim, it’s very likely that they’ve been seeing great success by marketing and premiering action animation outside of the network’s late night Saturday animation block.
The story of Unicorn Warriors Eternal follows three heroes: Edred the elf, Melinda the sorcerer, and Seng, a mystic monk. Their duty is to fight an ever-present evil that continues to rebirth itself over the course of time. Their souls are bound by this evil force, and with the help of the wizard Merlin and a robot named Copernicus, their souls are able to stay alive and transfer into new bodies, becoming warriors who are capable of protecting the world from this evil threat. As the series opens in 1890 England, Copernicus’ next host for Melinda is a young girl named Emma. Emma seems to be unaware of what Unicorn is, that she is now Melinda, or that it’s her duty to protect the world from danger. Strangely, the other warriors that were chosen each experience a different sort of rebirth, with a young orphan boy named Alfie being taken over by Seng, and a traveling magician named Dimitri, who Edred joins with. While Edred regains his full memories and his fighting abilities in his new body, Seng only seems to have half-control over Alfie, with Alfie appearing to still have some control over his body and mind.
The premiere does a good job setting up the overall structure of what to look forward to with the series. The events of the first two episodes are well-paced and told well, but so far, they do feel short of what made the first half of Primal’s first season so amazing. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a Genndy show that has had a lot of dialogue, but that shouldn’t be taken as a mark against it because the character interactions are cute and the characters themselves are all likable. Emma is a good-hearted girl but she seems conflicted on her role as being a part of Unicorn. Alfie, being an orphan, is tough but still a kid, and he seems quite curious about the role he has a part in, Copernicus, while he is silent, ends up being wildly expressive. The only character who isn’t fully developed yet is Dimitri/Edred. Perhaps later in the series they will dive into more of the characters’ past. Something that made shows like Samurai Jack and Primal amazing is their long moments of quiet to appreciate the artwork and allow the animation to create a mood while also building the characters, especially giving them moments of reflection and growth. While that is still something you’ll find in Unicorn’s first two episodes, it’s very story-focused so far, so it seems like the creations of those long, quiet moments is currently taking a backseat in order to drive the narrative. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that and it is refreshing to watch a show that does take its time to explain to the audience what’s happening without explicitly putting it out.
The art direction in the series is amazing, with apparent inspirations from the works of Max Fleischer and Osamu Tezuka (creative behind Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Phoenix). One can definitely see the Fleischer influence in the character designs done by Stephen DeStefano (Venture Bros.) as the designs seem very reminiscent of Popeye. This ends up being a funny connection for both Tartakovsky and DeStefano as both were working on an animated Popeye film for Sony before that project was canceled. Unicorn also exhibits an obvious steampunk inspiration right down to the world being 1890 London, but a London where flying vehicles and robots litter the cityscape. The sound design is equally excellent, with Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom putting together a great score that sets a perfect tone and mood for each set piece, from intense action scenes to calm and peaceful moments.
Overall, the premiere of Unicorn Warriors Eternal was great and comes highly recommended to anyone interested in watching a new original idea from Genndy Tartakovsky. It continues to prove that even after over twenty years working in the animation industry, he isn’t slowing down and once again delivers a new and unique idea that will excite animation and television fans of all ages. He continues to prove that cartoons are more than just comedies or kids shows and that animation can appeal to all ages and all walks of life.
Unicorn Warriors Eternal airs Thursdays on Adult Swim| Next day on MAX | Saturday nights on Toonami
(Sources: https://www.pastemagazine.com/tv/adult-swim/genndy-tartakovsky-primal-sequel-unicorn-warriors-eternal-interview, https://deadline.com/2020/10/unicorn-warriors-eternal-hbo-max-cartoon-network-genndy-tartakovsky-1234604548/)