If you’ve ever enjoyed cartoons as an art form, you need to see Primal. The latest series from producer Genndy Tartakovsky, he of Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack fame, it’s not so much a show as a showcase of brilliant animation and direction. The first five episodes are available on HBO Max.
Not Much to It
Primal is set in a fantasy version of pre-history, the kind of setting you might see for a set of loose children’s toys that’s much more interested in imagination than in paleontology. It follows the wandering adventures of a small T-rex and a burly caveman. And I do mean a caveman, not an early hominid or a Neanderthal: Think One Million BC, not The Quest for Fire.
The story is relayed entirely without dialogue: The caveman can only grunt and yell, the dinosaur can only roar and hiss. The characters have names (Spear the caveman, Fang the T-Rex), but you’ll only discover them if you dig into the production notes. There are other intelligent creatures in the wild world, but they’re few and far between, and even those that are like Spear don’t have much to say.
The two form an unlikely duo after a pack of much larger predators eat his family and her brood, respectively. Once the killers are defeated, Spear and Fang walk from place to place. We’re not told where Spear and Fang are going, what they’re looking for, or what they might do if they find it. Their only pressing concerns are finding something to eat and avoiding (or mercilessly killing) anything that wants to eat them.
It’s an episodic experience that has a lot more in common with older shows like Have Gun, Will Travel than even the loosest sitcom you might see on television today. You can watch the episodes in almost any order and get the gist of it: It takes only two (out of ten so far) to nail down the cooperative supportive dynamic between man and beast. Fang is not Spear’s pet or even his ride, and he’s not her captive. It’s more of a Han and Chewie situation, except neither of them is the snarky one.
Oh, and before we go any further: Despite the fantastic subject matter and the animated format, this is absolutely not a show for children. It airs exclusively on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s brazenly grown-ups only section, and it earns that distinction. Basically, every episode will have extreme amounts of visceral violence, often expressed in lingering, gory shots. It is, in the purest sense of the word, savage.
A Feast for the Eyes
If 20 minutes of cartoon with no dialogue and essentially no humor doesn’t sound appealing to you, it probably won’t be. Primal is a showcase: A chance for Tartakovsky and his team to go absolutely hog wild with animation, direction, character design, and glorious, glorious color.
It’s hard to express in verbal terms the sheer joy in motion that Primal delivers. I could talk about how you can see Tartakovsky’s love of contrasting angular and curved elements in the characters, or how the sharp thick lines manage to express so much motion and emotion while bucking the anime influences of other animated shows. I could talk about the sheer creativity of the weekly action set pieces are worth watching in and of themselves, just to see fantasy versions of prehistoric beasts duking it out.
But really, you just have to see this thing in motion. Watch the four-minute clip below. By the end, you’ll know if you want to see the rest of the series or not. Warning: It’s quite graphic, but it’s one of the least-bloody sequences in Primal.
That said, the presentation isn’t for everyone. Unlike other shows that are showcases for amazing animation, Primal demands that you pay attention more or less all the time. The reliance on subtle emotion in the main characters in place of spoken dialogue means that you can’t watch it while browsing news feeds on your smartphone.
As an experience, it has more in common with, say, Fantasia than something with amazing action sequences and an overall plot, like Attack on Titan or Hunter X Hunter. It takes surprising focus to actually enjoy Primal, so save it for short sessions of viewing instead of long binges.
If you’re a long-time fan of animation, you’ll be able to see a few of the seams. Primal is reportedly produced in TVPaint, a popular animation suite designed for professional production, as opposed to home-grown systems as seen at Disney, Pixar, and co. And yeah, if you look closely, you’ll see repeated elements, shifting character’s scales, and a few animation inconsistencies. One episode that repeatedly zooms through a dark forest is particularly guilty.
But overall, pretty much every single visual element of Primal is jaw-dropping. It reminds me of nothing less than those classic color Sunday strips of Calvin and Hobbes when Bill Waterson spent one tiny square on space on a joke and went nuts painting watercolor dinosaurs for the rest of it. Except now it’s in motion.
While the first episode leans heavily on emotion to sell the relationship between Spear and Fang, the series gets into a rhythm over the following episodes, focusing mostly on those extended action sequences to flesh out some of the world. Generally, one or the other of them will get in trouble, or they’ll meet up with one really big thing or lots of really small things. And then kill them.
But when the show does decide to slow down, allowing you to focus on the subtle relationship between its non-verbal leads, it can surprise you with just how touching it’s willing to become. Nothing in the first season made me bawl like the infamous first sequence in Up, but it definitely sells that core bond between Spear and Fang.
The show ends its first five episodes on a cliffhanger,then has an even bigger drop for the tenth (and currently final) episode. It’s the best kind of finale for expanding the story, leaving you wanting more not just for the sake of the characters, but for what it means for the world of Primal as a whole. Fortunately, we know that a second season is coming … though there’s no telling when it might actually arrive.
Tricky to Track Down
The bad news is that it’s a little hard to find all of Primal at the moment. HBO Max is the only streaming service that has it as part of its full catalog and then, only the first five episodes of ten. If you subscribe to a cable or satellite package, you can also log in to the Adult Swim website for those same five episodes.
Oddly, all ten episodes of Primal can be watched as video on demand if you subscribe to the pricey YouTube TV. Sling TV gets the first five, but not the last. There’s no DVD or Blu-Ray release yet, and nowhere to watch the trailing five episodes for free.
The good news is that it’s available to buy episode-by-episode from all the usual suspects: Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. And though it’s pretty pricey for the length of actual content, for me, Primal is worth every penny.