If you’ve ever enjoyed cartoons as an art form, you have to see it PrimalThe latest series from producer Genndy Tartakovsky, he from Dexter̵
Not much to it
Primal takes place in a fantasy version of prehistory, the kind of setting you might see for a set of loose kids’ toys far more interested in imagination than paleontology. It follows the wandering adventures of a tiny T-rex and burly caveman. And I mean one caveman, not an early hominin or a Neanderthal: think One million BC, not The search for fire
The story is told completely without dialogue: the caveman can only growl and scream, the dinosaur can only roar and hiss. The characters have names (Spear the Caveman, Fang the T-Rex), but you will only discover them if you dig into the production notes. There are other intelligent creatures in the wild world, but they are few and far between, and even those who look like Spear don’t have much to say.
The two form an unlikely duo after a group of much larger predators eat his family and her offspring respectively. Once the killers are defeated, Spear and Fang walk from place to place. We are not told where Spear and Fang are going, what they are 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 she wants to eat.
It’s an episodic experience much more in common with older shows like Have a gun, will travel than even the loosest sitcom you could see on television today. You can watch the episodes in almost any order and get the gist of it: It only takes two (out of ten so far) to establish the cooperative supportive dynamic between humans and animals. Fang isn’t Spear’s pet or even his ride, and he’s not her prisoner. It’s more of a Han and Chewie situation, except neither of them are the snarky.
Oh, and before we go any further, despite the fantastic subject matter and animated format, this is definitely not a show for kids. It airs exclusively on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s cheeky adult-only section, and it deserves that accolade. Basically, every episode will feature extreme amounts of visceral violence, often expressed in dragging, gory shots. It is, in the purest sense of the word, fierce.
A lust for the eye
If 20 minutes of cartoon with no dialogue and essentially no humor doesn’t appeal to you, it probably won’t. Primal is a showcase: an opportunity for Tartakovsky and his team to go wild with animation, direction, character design and glorious, glorious colors.
It is difficult to express in verbal terms the sheer joy of movement Primal supplies. I could talk about how you can see Tartakovsky’s love for contrasting angular and curved elements in the characters, or how the sharp thick lines manage to express so much movement and emotion while resisting the anime influences from other animated shows. I could talk about the sheer creativity of the weekly action sequences that are worth watching in their own right just to see fantasy versions of prehistoric beasts challenging it.
But really, you just have to see this thing moving. Watch the four minute clip below. At the end you know whether you want to see the rest of the series or not. Warning: It’s pretty graphic, but it’s one of the least gory sequences in there Primal
That said, the presentation isn’t for everyone. Unlike other shows that are showcases for great animation, Primal demands that you more or less always pay attention. Its reliance on subtle emotion in the main characters rather than spoken dialog means you can’t watch it while browsing news feeds on your smartphone.
As an experience it has more in common with eg Fantasia than something with great action scenes and a general plot, like Attack on Titan or Hunter X Hunter. It takes a surprising focus to really enjoy Primal, so save it for short viewing sessions instead of long binges.
If you have been a fan of animation for a long time, you can see some seams. Primal is reportedly being produced in TVPaint, a popular animation suite designed for professional production as opposed to homegrown systems, as seen at Disney, Pixar and co. And yes, if you look closely you can see repeated elements, character scales and a few inconsistencies in the animation. An episode that buzzes repeatedly through a dark forest is particularly guilty.
But in general pretty much every visual element of it Primal is overwhelming. It reminds me of nothing less than those classic Sunday bands of color Calvin and Hobbes when Bill Waterson spent a little square of space on a joke and went crazy painting watercolor dinosaurs the rest of the time. Except it’s on the move now.
While the first episode relies heavily on emotion to sell Spear and Fang’s relationship, the series gets into a rhythm over the following episodes, focusing mainly on those elaborate action sequences to work out some part of the world. Generally, one or the other will get into trouble, or they will run into a very big thing or a lot of very small things. And then kill them.
But if the show decides to slow down so you can focus on the subtle relationship between the nonverbal leads, you may be surprised at how moving it wants to get. Nothing in the first season made me roar like the infamous first series Up, but it certainly sells that core bond between Spear and Fang.
The show ends on a cliffhanger for the first five episodes, then has an even bigger drop for the tenth (and currently final) episode. It’s the best finale for expanding the story, making you want more, not only for the sake of the characters, but also for what it means for the world of Primal As a whole. Fortunately, we know that there will be a second season … although it is impossible to say when it will actually arrive.
Difficult to track down
The bad news is it’s a bit difficult to find them all Primal currently. 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 into the Adult Swim website for those same five episodes.
Strangely enough, all ten episodes are from Primal can be watched as video-on-demand if you subscribe to the expensive YouTube TV. Sling TV gets the first five, but not the last. There is no DVD or Blu-Ray release yet, and you can’t watch the next five episodes for free anywhere.
The good news is that it is available to buy episode by episode from all the usual suspects: Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. And while it’s pretty pricey for me for the length of the actual content, Primal is worth every penny.