Genndy Tartakovsky on 'Dexter's Laboratory,' 'Powerpuff Girls' and why he won't return to 'Star Wars': 'I wouldn't go back'

The legendary animator explains the origins of classic cartoons like "Powerpuff Girls" and "Samurai Jack."

Animator Genndy Tartakovsky (center) reflects on some of his best-remembered cartoons including The Powerpuff Girl (left) and Samurai Jack (right). (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection/Getty Images)
Animator Genndy Tartakovsky (center) reflects on some of his best-remembered cartoons including The Powerpuff Girls (left) and Samurai Jack (right). (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection/Getty Images)

For nearly 30 years now, Genndy Tartakovsky has overseen era-defining cartoons that have captured millions of eyeballs. But the Russia-born animator tells Yahoo Entertainment that his work is first and foremost intended for an audience of one. "When I come up with a show, it's never like, 'I'm gonna make this one for 10-year-olds,'" Tartakovsky says. "I don't know what they like! I don't know what anybody likes, really. I just know what I like and what that communicates to me."

"Obviously, you hope an audience will like it," the creator of Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack and Primal adds with a laugh. "But you have to be really careful because then you're walking a tightrope of doing stuff for fans. As long as people strong reactions to what I do [for myself], I'm gonna keep doing it. It's all I got."

Of course, the downside to that approach is that it can sometimes take decades to get what you like onscreen. Case in point: Tartakovsky's latest series, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal, has taken two decades to become a reality. Premiering May 4 at midnight on Adult Swim, the steampunk-inspired series takes place in a version of 19th century London populated by magical heroes and villains. Powerful sorceress Melinda (voiced by Hazel Doupe), cosmic monk Seng (Demari Hunte) and elfin warrior Eldred (Tom Milligan) play the members of Unicorn — a trio who reawaken to combat evil in different eras... only this time, their spirits are housed in teenage bodies.

The heroes of Tartakovsky's latest series, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal. (Photo: Warner Bros. Discovery)
The heroes of Tartakovsky's latest series, Unicorn: Warriors Eternal. (Photo: Warner Bros. Discovery)

Tartakovsky says that the original version of the show that he dreamed up 20 years ago was more about the conflict between magic and technology. But the incarnation that's coming to Adult Swim is rooted in something closer to home for him — the push-pull between adolescence and adulthood that defines the teenage experience.

"Watching my girls become teenagers has been shocking," says the father of three. "This light all of a sudden turns on and they're not little girls anymore. I almost got lucky that this show wasn't made earlier, because I got to experience that [transformation] firsthand. All of a sudden your mind is more adult, but body isn't quite there yet. That's something I really wanted to tap into."

One thing that's united all of Tartakovsky's various series has been an emphasis on silent storytelling over dialogue-driven cartoons. That's most evident through Unicorn: Warriors Eternal's breakout character, Copernicus, a silent, rotund robot that bears a passing resemblance to Tik-Tok — the mechanical man from the merry old land of Oz.

"As an animator, I've always been interested in movement," he explains. "I go into a sequence thinking, 'What's the funniest movement I could do?' as opposed to 'What's the funniest line of dialogue I could do.' You can trace that all the way back to Dexter's Laboratory, where there were a lot of sequences with no words."

Since Tartakovsky suggested it, let's jump in the Wayback Machine — with apologies to Mr. Peabody — and revisit the full arc of his career in our latest Director's Reel.

Dexter's Laboratory (1996)

Dexter and Dee Dee in the 1996 series, Dexter's Laboratory. (Photo: Cartoon Network / Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Dexter and Dee Dee in the 1996 series, Dexter's Laboratory. (Photo: Cartoon Network/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

When it comes to '90s animation, there's before Ren & Stimpy and after Ren & Stimpy. John Kricfalusi's singular creation about an angry chihuahua and his dumb feline friend premiered on Nickelodeon in 1991 and revolutionized the style and tone of basic cable cartoons. Tartakovsky was an animation student at CalArts when Ren & Stimpy hit the airwaves and he remembers the way the series both built upon — and departed from — what he'd grown up watching as a Moscow-to-Chicago transplant.

"We grew up on Saturday morning cartoons — the really bad ones," he says, laughing. "But we also grew up on reruns of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. Ren & Stimpy was a modern version of one of those old cartoons in that it was was drawn really well and pushed the envelope like crazy. It was definitely an inspiration when I got the chance to make something."

That "something" was Dexter's Laboratory, which followed the titular boy genius and his sabotage-prone big sister, Dee Dee. The duo first appeared on the airwaves in 1995 as part of Hanna-Barbera's What a Cartoon! anthology series and then scored their own show the following year — five years after Ren & Stimpy's launch. The influence of Kricfaluski's cartoon is certainly apparent in Dexter, both in terms of the hyperactive visuals and Dexter's memorable voice, which actress Christine Cavanaugh based on a combination of Tartakovsky's lingering Russian accent and an exaggerated French accent that an old roommate used for their answering machine message.

At the same time, the animator says that Dexter and Dee Dee owe even more to Bugs and Daffy than Ren and Stimpy. "It was about making that old stuff our own," he explains, noting that most episodes of Dexter's Laboratory follow the "chase cartoon" format that provides the basis for so many Looney Tunes shorts. "The dynamic is that Dexter creates an invention and Dee Dee ruins it, and it backfires on him for seven minutes and 15 jokes. Luckily, we also had this brother and sister thing that what people could relate to, and that really worked."

Funnily enough, Tartakovsky admits that he didn't realize just how well Dexter and Dee Dee's sibling dynamic worked until midway through the show's run. "I thought we were doing this cool show with snappy animation about laboratories in bedrooms," he says. "But then I did this signing at a comics convention, and some fan came up to me and said, 'You really nailed the brother-and-sister relationship.' And in that moment I was like, 'Oh right! That's the focus of it.' My mind clicked over a gear shift and that's when I realized for the first time that these cartoons are always about the characters."

The Powerpuff Girls (1998)

Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup in The Powerpuff Girls. (Photo: Cartoon Network/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup are The Powerpuff Girls. (Photo: Cartoon Network/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Tartakovsky's CalArts classmate Craig McCracken was a key member of the Dexter's Laboratory creative team, and he fulfilled a similar role on McCracken's beloved superhero series, which also debuted on What a Cartoon! before becoming its own standalone show. And just as Dexter was a new spin on vintage chase cartons, the intention behind Powerpuff was to challenge antiquated ideas about animated violence. "At the time, we were breaking through the old aesthetic about violence and TV and cuteness versus ugliness," Tartakovsky explains. "The whole idea with Powerpuff was the irony of something super-cute beating you up."

But that idea also got the show into trouble based on the amount of violence committed by the super-cute trio of Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup, three tiny tots who pack a seriously big punch. While the characters quickly grew up into feminist icons, some viewers were — and still arequick to point out their wanton acts of destruction during the original show's six season-and-a-movie run from 1998 through 2005. Asked whether the show might have inspired the same complaints about violence had the characters been boys instead of girls, Tartakovsky acknowledges that the characters' gender likely played a role.

"I can say for sure, but if they were boys, there probably would have been less [controversy]," he agrees. "It's hard to remember now, but there was definitely a lot of scrutiny at the time about what we could and couldn't do. The secret is that more boys watched the show than girls — the boys would just never admit to it!"

The Powerpuff Girls has been revived twice since the original run wrapped up, and The CW attempted a live-action version in 2021 that never got past the pilot stage. Tartakovsky confirms that he wasn't involved in that ill-fated venture, and he's generally skeptical about turning animated shows into live-action franchises. "Animation gives you this certain iconic-ness that live action doesn't get sometimes. As animators, we're doing a caricature of real life and when you draw a story, it becomes its own thing. That's what makes it special."

Samurai Jack (2001)

The title character of Tartakovsky's East-meets-West hit, Samurai Jack. (Photo: Cartoon Network/Courtesy Everett Collection)
The title character of Tartakovsky's West-meets-East hit, Samurai Jack. (Photo: Cartoon Network/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speaking of violence, you can't say that Tartakovsky's next series pulled its punches either. Equally inspired by classic '50s and '60s samurai classics, the oh-so-'70s David Carradine series Kung Fu and '80s and '90s anime, the East-meets-West adventure Samurai Jack sends its title character on a centuries-spanning quest to find and kill a wily demon. Along the way, he kills plenty of other foes — although Tartakovsky is quick to note that the show's high body count is accompanied by buckets of blood.

"We still had to follow all the [basic cable] rules, so there was no blood," he says of the series, which aired its first four seasons on Cartoon Network before jumping to Adult Swim for the long-delayed fifth and final year. "But it was certainly intense, and I don't think that level of intensity had been done before. Everything we did on Dexter, I wanted to push further with Jack."

Tartakovsky also wanted to change the visual language for action-driven cartoons, which too often let the dialogue dominate the proceedings. "Any good kung fu movie has a little bit of talking and then three times as much fighting, right? At that time in animation, you would have 20 minutes of talking and two minutes of action — even in anime — because that's really all they could afford. I wanted to change that dynamic."

It's worth noting that Samurai Jack preceded the Asian-influenced Avatar: The Last Airbender to the air by four years. Today, both shows are often held up as examples of series that mostly manage to avoid the pitfalls of Orientalism that can accompany West-meets-East narratives. "That was never even a conversation back then," Tartakovsky recalls. "I held Japanese culture in high revere and wanted to be very sincere — I didn't want to make fun or appropriate it. I wanted to bring a character from that world into our world. A very crazy, futuristic version of our world!"

"The highest compliment I got was when a group of Japanese businessmen were in town and were getting a tour of our studio," he continues. "Samurai Jack had just started airing in Japan, and I was sure they were going to see right through me. But instead they said, 'We love Samurai Jack! It's really good.' That was a great compliment. And they were doing Western-influenced animated shows in Japan as well. So culturally it goes both ways: as long as you're honest and sincere about it, I think it's OK."

Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003)

Begun the Clone Wars did with Tartakovsky's series of short, action-packed cartoons that bridged the gap between the last two entries of George Lucas's Star Wars prequel trilogy — 2002's Attack of the Clones and 2005's Revenge of the Sith. Twenty years later, that gap is now filled by Dave Filoni's Clone Wars animated series, while this earlier account exists outside of mainline Star Wars canon. (The series can be streamed on Disney+ where it's notably classified as Star Wars Vintage.)

"It was this really weird thing where the first two movies had been out, and they needed more programming," Tartakovsky says of how his journey to that far, far away galaxy began. "George's son was a fan of Samurai Jack and he liked it, too. Initially, George wanted me to only do one-minute episodes, but I told him that I needed at least three to five minutes to make it somewhat real." (The earliest Clone Wars episodes clocked in between two to three minutes, while the final batch were as long as twelve minutes.)

Naturally, Tartakovsky enjoyed the perks that came with being part of the Star Wars universe, including a personal trip to Skywalker Ranch, regular lunches with Lucas and a chance to see an early cut of Revenge of the Sith before anyone else. He also had the good fortune of dodging the barrage of criticisms that were being directed Lucas's way by legions of fanboys unhappy with the style and tone of the prequels. "The shorts were always received positively," he recalls, adding that those positive vibes are continuing now that viewers are rediscovering the series — or watching it for the first time — on streaming.

"When the other Clone Wars series started, they wanted to clean the slate and so ours was canon for a little while, and then all of a sudden they wiped us out of canon," he says. "I don't know if we're canon or not now, but people have definitely found them again." Asked if he's interested in contributing to current Star Wars canon, Tartakovsky indicates he's not booking a return ticket to Tatooine and all points beyond. "I did what I did, so I wouldn't go back."

Hotel Transylvania (2012)

Tartakovsky directed the original Hotel Transylvania and two of the three sequels. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)
Tartakovsky directed the original Hotel Transylvania and two of the three sequels. (Photo: Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

After years of generating his own material, Tartakovsky took a chance on someone else's pitch when he agreed to helm the first installment in what became a major big-screen franchise for Sony Pictures Animation. But he definitely didn't approach it like a work-for-hire gig. "The project was presented to me as: 'We've got Dracula, we've got a hotel, we've got a family of monsters and we've got Adam Sandler,'" the director says now.

More crucially, Hotel Transylvania also had 3D computer-generated animation, an arena that Tartakovsky hadn't played in yet. "I'd been wanting to go into CG animation, but I didn't want to reinvent the wheel," he explains. "Usually when 2D people go into CG, they're like, 'Let me make it graphic like in 2D.' But I wanted to use CG to fit my sensibility — I wanted to break the 3D tools so we could squash and stretch the character's faces in a bigger way. We gave birth to this super-cartoony style for CG; it was super-hard for the animators, but it was also super-fun to do."

As much fun as it was moving fast and breaking stuff, Tartakovsky didn't anticipate that he'd be sticking around Hotel Transylvania for two more movies, the second in 2015 and the third in 2018. (He co-wrote the screenplay, but didn't direct the fourth installment, which premiered on Prime Video last year.) "Creatively it was hard, because I have my own ideas," he says of his decision to make the two sequels. "But by the time we did the third one, I got pure creative control so I could push the storytelling more where I wanted it to go. It's a franchise that keeps getting bigger, which is great. But hand-drawn stuff is still where my love lies."

Primal (2019)

One of the passion projects that Tartakovsky made time for amid the demands of the Hotel Transylvania franchise is arguably also the boldest work of his career so far. Set at the dawn of time, Primal follows the unlikely friendship that blooms between a caveman and a T. rex, both of whom have lost their families to the various dangers of their prehistoric world. The first season is also entirely free of dialogue, allowing Tartakovsky to focus purely on the characters' movements.

"Primal grew out of the last season of Samurai Jack, where my favorite sequence was one with no dialogue," he recalls. "And then it struck me: 'Can I actually do a full series made up of these sequences?' I had this idea of a kid riding a dinosaur that I'd been playing around with, and I realized that it fit that premise perfectly."

In place of a kid, Tartakovsky swapped in an adult warrior who witnesses the horrific sight of his own children vanishing between a giant lizard's jaws. Moments like that certainly up the ante on any of the violence seen in Powerpuff Girls or Samurai Jack, although the director does note that he could have pushed it further. "We could have had a tooth coming through the kid's body, you know?" he jokes. "It needed to be visceral, but it's not gory. The idea is horrific and then it's just your imagination filling in the rest."

Unicorn: Warriors Eternal premieres May 4 at midnight on Adult Swim.