Primal is the latest effort from animation legend Genndy Tartakovsky, whose career includes work on Batman: The Animated Series and 2 Stupid Dogs. He came into his own at Cartoon Network during the ‘90s, working on a number of the channel’s breakout animation series. He created Dexter’s Laboratory and was actively involved in the first three seasons of The Powerpuff Girls.
In the 21st century, Tartakovsky became an auteur of television animation. He convinced Cartoon Network to sign off on Samurai Jack with a pitch that amounted to, “Hey, remember David Carradine in Kung Fu? Wasn’t that cool?” The series ran for four seasons and then was revived for a final season on Adult Swim in 2017.
That relationship paved the way for Primal, a breathtaking show that unfolds completely without dialogue, although Tartakovsky did draft in past collaborator Aaron LaPlante to provide some vocalizations for the story’s primary human character. Although Primal features impressive sound design and an evocative score from Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom, it is primarily a triumph of visual storytelling.
The narrative of Primal is fairly simple. A primitive human returns from a fishing trip to watch his family devoured by monstrous predators. With no home left, this caveman crosses paths with a dinosaur who has suffered a similar formative trauma. Alone yet together, the pair forge an unlikely bond as they wander through the wilderness.
Primal paints a picture of a world that is red in both tooth and claw. There is very little mercy or compassion to be found in Primal, which often feels more like survival horror than an adventure story. However, there is a surprising amount of humanity to be found — even from creatures that are not human. Primal touches repeatedly on the notion of belonging and family, of primal bonds.
The colors are striking, often using shades of blue to represent safety and red for danger. The inks are heavy, giving the characters surprising weight and momentum when combined with the blocky design. The characters and plot are in constant motion, with Primal delivering some of the most dynamic action scenes on television.
Stripping back the dialogue forces Tartakovsky and his team to focus on more basic forms of storytelling. Primal contrasts thrilling spectacle with moments of stillness. There is a surprising warmth and tenderness nestled within the show, which imbues all of its subjects with personality. Primal can be bloody and vicious, but that is just one color on its palette.
Primal aired last week (Monday through Friday) on Adult Swim in five 20-minute installments. The episodes are currently available to stream (with commercial interruption) on the Adult Swim website within the United States. You can watch the first episode here.