The Making of ‘Unicorn: Warriors Eternal:’ How Genndy Tartakovsky Crafted His Magnum Opus

The show is airing on Cartoon Network and streaming on Max

Unicorn: Warriors Eternal
A still from "Unicorn: Warriors Eternal." (Cartoon Network)

“Unicorn: Warriors Eternal,” airing now as part of the Adult Swim programming block on Cartoon Network (and streaming on Max), is centered around four indestructible spirits who travel through time, inhabiting the bodies of whoever is around, as they battle the forces of evil. After a brief prologue, we’re introduced to our characters, who all live in a cartoonishly steampunk-y Victorian London – one warrior inhabits the spirit of a young newlywed woman (complicating matters for her betrothed), another a young street urchin. There’s also a robot named Copernicus who guides the spirits through time.

It is both outlandish and singularly visionary; the kind of thing that could only be dreamed up by Genndy Tartakovsky, the fabled creator of “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack” and, most recently, the Emmy-winning “Primal.” “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” feels like both a culmination and extension of Tartakovsky’s previous work, mixing the spiritualism of “Samurai Jack” with that series’ go-for-broke action sequences, while containing the smaller, more emotional grace notes that make his oeuvre so beloved.

TheWrap spoke to Tartakovsky about where the show came from – and where it could go from here.

Tartakovsky said that he initially began to develop “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” while working at Cartoon Network in the early 2000s. He was finishing up “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” not the computer-animated series that would run for many seasons but his two-season run of traditionally animated micro shorts. “There were a lot of regime changes at the time and I wanted to do a new show. And I wanted to do this magic versus technology idea. That’s how it started,” Tartakovsky said.

He wanted the show to be very serialized, with a grand overarching mythology, but at the time “serialized” was a “bad word,” especially in animation, where the interchangeability of 11-minute episodes was key. “There was not an appetite for it. They didn’t want it. I moved on. And then for the last 20 years, I’ve been trying to sell it,” Tartakovsky said. “It’s a good idea and was always very strong with me. It’s something that I loved. And I had a vision for it.” Tartakovsky persisted, trying to sell it (“It went through a couple of development spurts at different places,” Tartakovsky admits) before finally landing back where the project started: Cartoon Network.

As to what changed between that version he dreamed up two decades ago and the one airing now, Tartakovsky says not much.

“It’s definitely more nuanced a bit from where it started more focusing on the magic versus technology aspect,” Tartakovsky said. “But then, through the years that became more and more cliché – how many robots come alive trying to take over the world could you do? And what and what started to rise was all the complexity of the character stories, especially with Melinda with her duality of being two characters at once. That was the golden ticket for me to really focus on. And then we started to shift away from the technology and really into like, how are they supposed to figure out this mystery and figure out themselves at the same time?”

Another move was a more logistical one – when “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” was finally announced, in 2020, it was meant to be a mainstream, all-audiences show for Cartoon Network. (It was announced alongside a “Tiny Toons” reboot, if that’s any indication.) This was in stark contrast to “Primal,” a show aimed more squarely at adults that aired at a decidedly unfriendly-to-children time slot. So it was a surprise when the show’s trailer debuted and a new time slot was announced – like “Primal” it was part of the Adult Swim programming block, with “Unicorn” airing at a new midnight slot.

“All I can do is kind of make the shows I make,” Tartakovsky said, unapologetically. “I think ‘Unicorn’ was intended, not for young kids, but you could certainly watch it at 10 or 12, or something like that.”

Tartakovsky also acknowledges that Adult Swim is going through “transitions,” where they can mix gonzo programming of old with stuff like “Primal” which, to Tartakovsky, is “more classic storytelling.” “They’re the home to more unique animation,” Tartakovsky said. “And so I think it could have fit on Cartoon Network, it could fit on Adult Swim. They release it where they release it. It doesn’t have gore and stuff, but it’s certainly more sophisticated in the storytelling.”

That being said, there is a pretty good gag early in the season, when the gang is fighting an army of nude soldiers and they knock off their, um, manhood, before the fighting begins. Hard to imagine seeing that during daytime Cartoon Network programming.

Tartakovsky acknowledges that “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” is a culmination of his work to date.

“It’s everything that I’ve done. I’ve been training and learning and getting better at to be able to do this show,” Tartakovsky said. His influences, from Max Fleischer to Osamu Tezuka are more pronounced (he acknowledged them during our interview), but the synthesis of his inspirations are also more elegantly formed. You can see bits of things that he never got to make, like his unrealized “Popeye” feature for Sony, return in “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal,” but in a different, altogether unexpected way.

Even Tartakovsky can understand that what he’s doing is perfecting what came before. “When I watch it, I go oh, yeah, this is like a better version of ‘Dexter’ in a way,” Tartakovsky said. “Leaning more on the drama and the emotions rather than on the comedy. ‘Dexter’ was about joke, joke, joke, joke…”

“Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” is so good, in fact, that you sort of don’t want it to end. Especially because, as the show begins, you see the warriors fighting in different time periods. Could the show go on?

“For sure,” Tartakovsky said about the possibility of future installments. (He also said that he is trying to mount a third, altogether different season of “Primal.”) “And this is where life and art and business meet and make my life extremely complex, where we obviously designed it as a multiple series type of thing. But in our new environment, nobody’s going to just green-light three seasons or two seasons or whatever it is. We roll the dice. And this is to the frustration of the fans.”

Tartakovsky briefly mentions “Sym-Bionic Titan,” a genuinely ahead-of-its-time animated series he co-created with future “Mickey Mouse” creator Paul Rudish and “Samurai Jack” vet Bryan Andrews. It was intended, and established, with an intended multi-season arc but was canceled after just one season, leaving fans hungry for more. (And on the edge of their seat.)

“We’re doing 10 right now. And if it succeeds, there’ll be more,” Tartakovsky said. “I don’t know what else to do with it.” When they started working on the show “the industry was booming” and Tartakovsky said that a multi-season order was almost guaranteed. “And then through the years of production, all of a sudden, I couldn’t find anybody to work on the show in 2020. It was the height of the animation industry during COVID. Everybody’s working, streaming is booming. It’s like the gold rush in animation,” Tartakovsky said. “And then within two years, people are calling me every week for work. There’s no work around town. And the status of animation is all of a sudden, like, Well, wait, where does this go? Exactly?

Quite frankly, with the amount of animated programming Warner Bros. Discovery has zapped from the Max platform, including classic “Looney Tunes” shorts from its golden era of animation (not to mention projects in development like a new “Batman” animated series), “Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” is lucky to be airing at all.

“It’s not the question of how can we do it? It’s, is somebody going to pay for us to do it? Animation is a business. It’s got to be successful. It has to earn its way to the second season,” Tartakovsky said. “If people are watching it, they’ll make more.”

And in today’s increasingly cutthroat streaming world, getting a second season might be the most challenging fight yet for the warriors eternal.

“Unicorn: Warriors Eternal” airs on Cartoon Network and is streaming on Max.