Genndy Tartakovsky has proudly become the auteur of adult 2D animation. His new “Unicorn Warriors: Eternal” steampunk series premieres May 4 on Adult Swim; he’s completing his R-rated dog comedy “Fixed” for release next year at Sony Pictures Animation; and he’s prepping for Season 3 of his Emmy-winning “Primal” series at Adult Swim, but departing from the prehistoric world.
With “Unicorn Warriors,” though, Tartakovsky combines his personal steampunk aesthetic with action and humor, going back to his old Cartoon Network days, but without the gore of “Primal” or “Samurai Jack.” It’s about three heroes — powerful sorceress Melinda (Hazel Doupe), cosmic monk Seng (Demari Hunte), and warrior elf Edred (Tom Milligan) — reawakened through eternity as teenagers to fight a mysterious supernatural force threatening humanity. In the first season, the three find themselves in industrial London, joined by a steam-powered robot, Copernicus.
“I started to develop it at the end of ‘Star Wars: Clone Wars,'” Tartakovsky told IndieWire. “It was more about magic versus technology. And that’s where the steampunk aesthetic came in. And then through the years, it became less focused on [that] and more on the characters and their conflicts: What it was like reawakening as a different person.
“And the biggest benefit was that in the last 20 years, I had three kids. And so seeing them go from 12 to 13, and, all of a sudden, my daughter’s a different person. It’s like, ‘What the hell’s going on? What possesses her now?’ And then seeing them become adults really fed upon it and was a benefit for sure.”
“Unicorn Warriors,” which, like “Primal,” is animated at French-based Studio La Cachette, still retains the look of golden age character animation that informed “Dexter’s Laboratory,” courtesy of character designer Stephen DeStefano (“Primal”). Melinda resembles Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop, Seng has a Chuck Jones vibe, and Edred is influenced by Zuka. But the most delightful character is the R2-D2-influenced robot, the epitome of steampunk. “To give something inanimate so much personality without dialogue is something I’m really comfortable with,” Tartakovsky said. “And it’s great ’cause Joel Valentine [the sound effects designer] bought all these real old steam whistles and bought different libraries of steam blasts and ratchets and cranks. So it’s really very handcrafted, almost like on a feature level to give him the voice.”
“Unicorn Warriors” also continues Tartakovsky’s bold use of color, popping with purple, red, black, and gold. “We really keep trying to make the colors emotional and not just to be fancy,” he added. “Everything that we’ve learned through the years from ‘Samurai’ to ‘Primal.’ We know how important color is to the storytelling, and so we keep trying to push it and create a mood.”
Speaking of “Primal,” which goes for its second Emmy, all Tartakovsky was willing to say at this point about Season 3 is that “it’s a new world, and we’re just trying to figure out how to operate in it. But I think everybody’s excited about it. Everybody believes in it.” He previously told IndieWire of his desire to spin-off “Primal” into an anthology franchise, embracing other genres in the same minimalist animation style. “The big idea is that ‘Primal’ becomes a brand,” he said. “Visceral, emotional, raw, minimal dialogue, artistic.”
Meanwhile, “Fixed,” about a dog that finds out it’s going to be neutered in 24 hours and decides to have a wild time with his buddies before settling down, is being animated at Renegade Animation (“Tom and Jerry: Cowboy Up!”) in Glendale, supervised by a dozen 2D vets no longer working at the Hollywood studios.”I first pitched it in 2010, and finally, we’re making it 13 years later, and it’s 2D. It’s fully animated, more fully than I could ever imagined it,” Tartakovsky added.
“Fixed” contains even more of a classic Warner Bros. cartoon foundation than “Unicorn Warriors,” but it’s contemporary and basically follows the rules of “101 Dalmatians.”
“It’s got raunchy humor, it’s got incredible feature-level cartoony animation, but it’s the best I’ve ever made,” Tartakovsky said. “But, if you can look past the butts and balls, there’s this whole other movie there. So, it’ll be really interesting to see how people react. Just the idea of sitting in an audience and watching a 2D animated movie will be incredible.”
“Unicorn Warriors: Eternal” premieres the first two episodes May 4 on Adult Swim and May 5 on HBO Max, followed by eight new episodes debuting weekly with encores on Fridays on Adult Swim and Toonami.