Unicorn: Warriors Eternal Review – A Tartakovsky Superhero Epic
Genndy Tartakovsky crafts a masterful superhero story that forges its own path and combines magic, mysticism, and emotion.
This Unicorn: Warriors Eternal review contains no spoilers.
“Who are you?”
Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the most exciting storytellers in animation who’s responsible for totemic titles like Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Primal. Tartakovsky has a passion and respect for animation that’s palpable in his creations. Unicorn: Warriors Eternal is Tartakovsky at his most unleashed and it’s like he’s directed an animated version of Eternals or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with a hint of Tintin and 1930s Disney thrown in for good measure. Set in an alternate version of 1890s London, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal tells a remarkable sci-fi/fantasy adventure that pulls from all sorts of international animation influences, but at its core is really a story about identity, family, and the unbearable weight of destiny.
Tartakovsky’s work always searches for the emotional truths behind its grandiose action stereotypes and Unicorn: Warriors Eternal gives real depth to the inciting incident that kicks off the series instead of just glossing over the fallout. The special figures who make up the titular collective get activated during pivotal periods in existence when they’re needed. Their souls ascend their mortal husks and become part of a higher power that’s used to help defend existence from dark forces.
The people that they used to be are irrelevant to what these heroic souls are meant to safeguard for the good of mankind. It’s a fascinating concept that packs each character with a ton of trauma as they try to accept their destiny, but also contend with the remnants of their past lives that won’t let go. It’s a complication that Unicorn: Warriors Eternal could completely move past following its premiere where these transformations occur, but the show is stronger for allowing this pain to fester and attack at unexpected moments.
Many of Tartakovsky’s previous works involve characters who refuse their destinies or at the least have trouble coming to terms with them. This has never been more in focus than it is in Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, which looks at the idea of fate and what it means to truly be one’s self and not just the role that society tells us to play in life. Melinda, in particular, is haunted by fragments of her past life that make the insurmountable task that lies ahead for her feel even more impossible. Her apocalyptic power and past force her and her fellow warriors into an uphill war in their pursuits to ward off evil, both terrestrial and cosmic in nature.
It’s dramatically smart that the public rebels against these heroes as they’re pegged as a “criminal gang of spiritualists.” In doing so, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal finds its own proper J. Jonah Jameson surrogate skeptic. On that note, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal boasts a fun cast of heroic characters, but it also makes sure that it includes a satisfying villain who can hold the audience in suspense. Unicorn: Warriors Eternal unleashes an engaging and competent antagonist that holds its own with Samurai Jack’s Aku and the worst of Clone Wars’ Sith Lords. It makes for an ideal counterpoint to the series’ heroes.
There’s exceptional, effortless world-building present right from the start of Unicorn: Warriors Eternal and its “less is more” mentality. Likewise, the silent nature of Copernicus is well-handled due to Tartakovsky’s previous experience on Primal and Samurai Jack. He’s more than capable when it comes to confidently letting visuals speak for themselves and not drowning episodes in exposition. Unicorn: Warriors Eternal is patient and restrained with its pacing, but the first installment is easily the slowest of the first half of the season. It gets bogged down by more character introductions than the rest of the season. It’s still a busy, anarchic entry that accomplishes a lot and hits the ground running.
Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, like all of Tartakovsky’s productions, looks absolutely gorgeous. However, this is a real step forward for Tartakovsky that blends together a number of different styles and sensibilities to flesh out a world that’s both vast and diverse. Eclectic art styles and influences from across the world and throughout time are fearlessly blended together here, whether it’s futuristic steampunk architecture, France’s Asterix & Obelix, the crunchy science fiction works of Moebius, Tex Avery cartoons, or a multitude of anime genres.
There are some round, oafish character designs that would have previously felt impossible in a Tartakovsky series that’s full of svelte and angular artwork. Unicorn: Warriors Eternal uses this variety to its advantage. The designs for the core cast of eternal heroes all shine in their respective ways and each individual already has such a personality through their visual style alone before the audience even gets to know them. Some of the material with Seng, the celestial monk who traverses the cosmic wasteland, makes up Unicorn: Warriors Eternal’s most beautiful moments.
Not only is every action sequence immaculate, but they showcase a litany of unique powers between the show’s diverse characters whether it’s a robot slugfest with the mechanical Copernicus, Melinda’s magical energy blasts, or a kinetic swordfight between Eldred and a barrage of blades. There are also grandiose, cosmic threats that feel like they’re pulled from right out of Primal’s scariest installments. Zombie elephants, sentient warrior statues, werewolves, and ghost ships are the mildest of obstacles that these heroes face. Unicorn: Warriors Eternal quickly sets a precedent for wild enemies where anything goes.
The magically-charged fights never disappoint, but they also feature distinct ideas and battle choreography so that Melinda’s bursts of energy don’t ever feel repetitive or predictable. There’s a chase that occurs between Melinda and a cosmic fox that’s set atop and within the stoney architecture of a small village that’s some of the most dynamic work that Tartakovsky has ever done and the perfect example of the freedom that Unicorn: Warriors Eternal gives him. This series is truly the blankest of checks.
On top of these standout visuals, Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom’s staccato and fast-paced jazz-inspired soundtrack helps punctuate the series’ unpredictable and chaotic battles. Too many anachronistic elements would cause Unicorn: Warriors Eternal to crumble under less confident creative control, but Tartakovsky understands how to make what should be jarring music the perfect glue that holds everything together.
Explosive action sequences help advance the story in Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, but there’s also a very tender and sweet side to the series. There are genuine emotional stakes for Melinda and the rest of these characters, all of which experience gutting losses over the course of the first-half of the season. This is hardly the first series of this nature to do such a thing, but Unicorn: Warriors Eternal doesn’t shy away from the collective consequences of heroism and how these broad acts for the greater good can still leave the most disenfranchised without hope. And in that case, has any of this work actually been worth it? Hazel Doupe provides an especially emotional performance as Melinda that adds so much to this conflicted character. Unicorn: Warriors Eternal is truly funny at times, too. It understands how to best undercut each scene from the expected ways in which they’ll play out.
Audiences have come to expect a lot from Genndy Tartakovsky and Unicorn: Warriors Eternal actually meets those lofty projections. It confidently rises to the occasion at every turn and it’s hard to not just consistently be delighted that this series exists in the first place. Unicorn: Warriors Eternal is truly the closest thing to a kid who’s just playing with a bunch of different toys in the sandbox, but in the best way possible. There’s a limitless–yet logical–nature to Unicorn: Warriors Eternal; a unique, animated triumph that’s hopefully only getting started with its endless adventure.
The first two episodes of Unicorn: Warriors Eternal premiere Thursday night at 12 a.m. ET on Adult Swim.