Since his 1996 series Dexter’s Laboratory premiered on Cartoon Network, Genndy Tartakovsky has become a household name in animation. His new show, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, feels like a natural extension and endpoint of his previous work up to now.
Because of the success of the Hotel Transylvania movies and TV works like the 2D version of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Tartakovsky has built up enough goodwill to do whatever he pleases in the animation space. After tying up most of his loose ends with the 2017 revival of Samurai Jack and its video game epilogue Battle Through Time, Tartakovsky has moved on; not satisfied with his prehistoric series Primal becoming an Emmy-winning hit, he dreamed up Unicorn: Warriors Eternal.
Like with Primal, Unicorn sees Tartakovsky jump from Cartoon Network to Adult Swim, its late-night spinoff block that’s home to anime and more adult-oriented fare. It’s a show that he’s been trying to get made for decades, but various studios passed on for one reason or another. It might be easy to see why, as the show’s cold open makes it clear from the start how big its scope is. In ancient Egypt, a trio of warriors—Melinda (Grey Griffin), a powerful sorceress; Seng (Alain Uy), a monk who can see across space and time; and the sword-wielding elf Edred (Jacob Dudman)—fight a powerful monster. Just when they think they’ve ended it, the wizard Merlin informs them that it’s escaped to another time, and the three are tasked with fighting it throughout various points in history. Their sole help comes in the form of Copernicus, a robot Merlin yanked from some point in history, who houses their souls in his metallic core and will blast them into someone else’s body so they can take it over whenever the beast makes an appearance.
The warriors have been fighting this monster for centuries, but the show specifically zeroes in on 1890s London as its main time period. Copernicus finds himself reawakened after being shut off for some time and eventually decides that a young woman named Emma (Hazel Doupe) is the perfect fit for Melinda. Emma’s given just enough characterization with her family before things go bad and she’s forced into being the vessel for the soul of an immortal warrior. Because he’s a big machine, Copernicus’ sudden appearance as he lumbers towards her in the middle of her wedding feels like something out of a horror movie rather than a hero being called to action. The show never really lets you forget that Copernicus would look like a monster to people throughout history, and nowhere is that more clear than when he easily fights off the guests attacking him as he makes a beeline for Emma.
Before the show’s title card, we see this soul-blasting process three times across multiple time periods, each of which could probably be a season of TV in their own right. It’s important for the show to get this across, as it also establishes both how public these transformations can get, and what happens to the vessel after a warrior’s soul enters their body. That person takes on the physical characteristics of the hero in question, meaning Emma becomes a being wrapped in shadow with flowing black hair. The transformation process is visually impressive on its own, but then the show makes it clear how different Emma’s become by having her reject her fiancé Winston and use her powers for the first time, with shards of glass blasting around the wedding guests.
Tartakovsky’s shows have always been visual stunners, and Unicorn is no different. The characters all have designs and exaggerated proportions similar to old Max Fleischer cartoons, and the show loves tight close-ups on faces to really sell how cartoonish they are. That anachronistic style may seem off-putting at first (if it’s not fully intentional, Emma looking like a goth version of Betty Boop may prove jarring), but ultimately works. Its steampunk take on London is a wonder, and Copernicus is practically worth the price of admission alone. He’s effectively a steampunk version of R2-D2, with wildly long limbs who conveys his thoughts primarily through beeps or facial expressions. It’s never not entertaining to see what else he has up his sleeve, and some scenes feel like they were made expressly for the purpose of the animation team showing off how good a job they did with this specific character.
Of the first two episodes, the second feels more fully formed and serves as the true basis for the show. It’s where the new vessels of Seng and Edred come into play; Edred takes the body of a Russian magician named Dimitri (Tom Milligan), and Seng inhabits a soccer (or rather, football) player named Alfie Demari Hunte). Unlike the other two vessels, Alfie’s a young kid, and having his mind expanded to include the soul of a cosmic holy warrior is all sorts of wonky for him. Whenever it feels like Seng’s going to come through with his powers or give Emma some much-needed answers, Alfie gets distracted by whatever he’s seeing in his trippy cosmic mindspace, like a turtle or whale flying through space. (In his orange-tinged view of the cosmos, Alfie sees the beast as a being of green flame, which looks incredible.) Alfie’s antics serve as a good tension breaker—he’s so gone off that cosmic loud that he’ll suddenly ascend to the sky or float upside down, which never stops being worth a laugh or two.
Naturally, the show comes alive whenever it’s showing off its superheroic characters or just letting the visuals do the talking. (Compared to how quiet Samurai and Primal could be, the show is about as chatty as Dexter or maybe Sym-Bionic Titan.) But it remains to be seen how it’ll do when it’s time to slow down and start having its characters learn about their situation or dig into their backstories. There’s enough going on already, and with Alfie’s inability to pay attention, and other distractions like conveniently timed interruptions from monsters, the show could delay answering some of the questions it’s set up.
Unicorn: Warriors Eternal feels like a reward for those who’ve become invested in Tartakovsky’s growth as a creator over the years. It’s easy to see shades of earlier work in some form or fashion, from Samurai Jack to Sym-Bionic Titan. While it’s currently light on real story depth in favor of action and gags, its striking visual style and odd blend of characters makes for something compelling and deeply charming. It’s easy to see why Tartakovsky would try so hard to bring it to fruition: whatever flaws there are, there’s a fun superhero fantasy story here that feels like it could be up there with the creator’s best work.
The first two episodes of Unicorn: Warriors Eternal are now streaming; new episodes premiere Fridays on Adult Swim, then release the following day on HBO Max.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.