‘Primal’ Is the Most Underrated Animated Series on TV and Puts ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’ to Shame

‘Primal’ Is the Most Underrated Animated Series on TV and Puts ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’ to Shame

Primal‘s first comprehensible word isn’t uttered until the closing frames of its Season 1 finale, and yet few animation efforts speak—or should I say, roar—louder than Genndy Tartakovsky’s prehistoric fantasy, whose stylish storytelling is so superb, and sneakily moving , that dialogue would only diminish its raw, purposeful power.

Originally premiering in October 2019, the Emmy Award-winning latest from the legendary artist—whose summary includes Dexter’s Laboratory, SamuraiJack, Star Wars: Clone Warsand the Hotel Transylvania films—is set in an anachronistic primordial era and fixes on the friendship between neanderthal Spear (voiced in grunts and screams by Aaron LaPlante) and female Tyrannosaurus Fang, an odd couple bonded by tragedy (ie the savage deaths of their families) and mutual respect and admiration. Sharing a report that’s less master-pet than loyal, sparring siblings, Spear and Fang are the most unique pair on TV, and their saga is one defined not by speech but by breathless, striking, evocative action.

Primal‘s initial 10-episode run concluded with Spear calling out for “Mira” (Laëtitia Eïdo), the bald slave woman he’d met and fallen for, only to see her snatched by a tribe of mysterious men whose boat boasted the same scorpion logo that was tattooed on her head. Season 2 of Tartakovsky’s celebrated series (July 21 on Adult Swim, and the next day on HBO Max) picks up at that heartbreaking moment, with Spear howling for his kidnapped beloved and then spontaneously attempting to swim after the ship, albeit to no avail. Spear is a headstrong beast of a man, if one who’s slowly developing an advanced consciousness—and with it, a conscience and sense of empathy, allegiance, trust, ingenuity, and love. Faced with this seemingly insurmountable new obstacle, Spear refuses to quit, spying a leaf in the water and getting the immediate idea to build a raft that he can use to chase after Mira. It’s inspiration of an ideal sort, since said notion requires the type of construction that’s tailor-made for his skills—namely, smashing and destroying, with Spear using a hammer to knock down beach trees for his craft.

Fang is a similarly primitive yet shrewd creature, and, as is generally the case in Primal, observation proves the key to evolution, with the dinosaur perceptively understanding Spear’s intention and joining in his tree-felling canvas. Serving as writer and director, and collaborating with art director Scott Wills and background designer Christian Schellewald, Tartakovsky brings this material to life with clean, efficient vibrancy and viciousness. As before, there’s sharp, swooping, slashing swiftness to the show’s animation, enhanced by sonic juxtapositions of eerie and/or melancholy silence and growling cacophony (courtesy of sound designer Joel Valentine), the latter embellished by Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom’s rousing, thunderous score. Narratively and compositionally, the proceedings are dynamic, balancing ferocity and tenderness, minimalism and sophistication with captivating flair.

Primal exists in a make-believe past in which humans and dinosaurs co-exist, and magic and monsters rule the land. Still, by intently concentrating on his protagonists’ deeds, expressions and camaraderie, Tartakovsky conveys a wellspring of emotion, much of it related to the tormented pain and quiet ecstasy of existence. Grief, jealousy and longing are all byproducts of Spear’s dawning self-awareness, as are the joy and security that comes from establishing profound bonds with likeminded souls—in this case, Fang, a formidable Tyrannosaur who’s Spear’s equal in just about every respect. Tartakovsky is interested in the sentience of ancient man and animal, and the various ways in which the two’s perspectives and instincts overlap and intersect, and he articulates that through panoramas of solitude, companionship and R-rated violence that’s attuned to the kill-or- be-killed nature of this carnivorous age.

There’s beauty and brutality in Primal, and the former dominates the Season 2 premiere “Sea of ​​Despair,” which follows Spear and Fang as they begin on a raft-bound quest to track down Mira. Their voyage takes them into a borderline-hallucinatory realm where sea and sky are indistinguishable, and rendered by the director as an abstract space of darkness and light. Tartakovsky routinely plays with scale to highlight his protagonists’ imposing stature and their small place in the vast universe, and both of those aspects are prominently featured in the episode, with Spear and Fang first forced to confront a watery landscape where food is sparse, and then confronted by foes of such an enormous nature—be it the swells of a titanic storm or the toothy mouths of a gargantuan aquatic predator—that death appears perilously close at hand.

Tartakovsky is interested in the sentience of ancient man and animal, and the various ways in which the two’s perspectives and instincts overlap and intersect, and he articulates that through panoramas of solitude, companionship and R-rated violence that’s attuned to the kill-or- be-killed nature of this carnivorous age.

Vacillating between grand panoramas and intense close-ups, fleetness and slow-motion, Primal is a visual wonder to behold. Though only the maiden two episodes of its second season were provided in advance to press, the series has clearly lost none of its aptitude for the majestic and the intimate, both of which are also in evidence in its sophomore installment “Shadow of Fate.” Having successfully made it across the ocean, Spear and Fang are separated and find themselves in the company of unexpected partners: for Spear, a tribe of strangers who converse in a foreign tongue and heal him with magic potions and rituals; and for Fang, a red dinosaur mate who teaches her how to navigate and survive this bountiful region. It’s not long before the friends locate each other, but their reunion is one fraught with complicated feelings and impulses, and ends in a triumph that simultaneously feels like a catastrophe.

Just as impressive as Primal‘s aesthetic panache is its compactness; the show packs a ton of stuff into each episode, even when those individual chapters focus on a very small segment of its larger serialized tale. Performing a balancing act between the macro and the micro at every turn, the series feels like a distillation of Tartakovsky’s prior work, if not the past twenty years’ worth of animation. With no clear end point in sight, or even a predictable direction for its prehistoric odyssey to take, Primal is an adventure that’s as surprising as it is solemn, and as pulse-pounding as it is poignant. It’s a sterling example of form as content, and once again solidifies Tartakovsky’s status as modern commercial animation’s most daring and inventive voice.

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