Primal review

Blink and miss one frame of detailed animation and you miss the entire world. At least, that’s the case when watching the masterful animation and razor-blade precision of Genndy Tartakovsky and his team. 

Echoing the flat, sharp-lined, dimensional aesthetic of its spiritual predecessor Samurai Jack, elements like whiplash, stillness, noise, and quiet are vital to the first five episodes of Primal, Tartakovsky’s latest limited series for Adult Swim. Tartakovsky pushes the envelope for cinematic televised animation through zero dialogue, wildlife ambiance, the grandeur and smallness of gestures, and stillness to convey action and introspection. With the rolling trum-trum-trum of Tyler Bates’ and Joanne Higginbottom’s music, Aaron LaPlante‘s growls, shrieks, grunts for a leading character with no words, the thrashy and crunching sound design by Joel Valentine, and Scott Willis’s sharp and flushed art direction, everything is woven into a painstaking presentation.

The premise is so comically ludicrous that its concept contrasts with the ghastly (and graceful) tonal execution made possible by animation: a caveman teams up with a T-Rex. The premiere, “Spear and Fang,” hurls the viewer into a prehistoric dog-eat-dog realm where man and dinosaurs patrol the earth. After snout-tipped Tyrannosaurs devour his loved ones, the caveman called “Spear” – this identifier cued by the episode title – witnesses his cave family’s same murderers devour the hatchlings of another T-Rex, our “Fang.” Spear and Fang enter a partnership, hunt for prey, and confront the unknown of the prehistoric jungle.

The show never exhausts itself of finding little idiosyncrasies: the caveman’s squared countenance creasing into apish rage with gradualism or immediacy, the limbs of emaciated cavemen flopping bonelessly, or a community of mammoths swaying their heads and trunks. The details concerning eyes are existentially hypnotic, such as the extreme close-ups of the human or bestial pupils that dilate, shrink, go bloodshot, reflect the predators, or even become a mirror for Spear to contemplate the expiration of life. There is deadpanned comedic timing as well when, during a nighty respite, a snake sneaks in and the caveman joins his spear with the snake and flings the carcass into the campfire within a second. In “Terror Under the Blood Moon,” the dino calculates a delightful eureka after trying and failing to scale to the zenith lair of devilish titan bats to save her human companion. She clocks the bats hauling their limp kills, so she collapses, plays dead, and lets the bats do the work for her. 

One of my favorite emotional surprises is in the second episode, “River of Snakes.” After a crummy hunt, Spear converts his irritation into reprieve by finding solace in shadow puppets, which segues into a tender flashback. It reminds me of the shadow puppetry of Ka, an infamously plot-driven Cirque du Soleil show, in a powerful sequence that makes minutiae more stirring against all the acrobatic combat and falling and flight stunts. 

Even through Primal‘s grit, grime, and gore, rays of empathy shine. Spear seems to be evolving a moral code about respecting the vulnerable, even if that extends to his sources of meat. In “A Cold Death,” the setup inverts the protagonist-antagonist narrative by framing one of Spear and Fang’s prey as a tragic hero of its own story in the first few minutes. The episode opens on the majesty of mammoths marching in harmony before a disparate element is slowly introduced: a pitiful weary mammoth catching up with its pack, but falling behind. He predictably becomes the man and dinosaur’s target and still puts up a fight. By focusing on its solitary suffering and its struggles against the series’ main duo, Fang and the audience are forced to contend with the brutality of the circle of life.

Tranquility is Tartakovsky’s sharpest blade – sharper than the tango of bloodshed because the slow-crawling pacing makes the showdowns more enticing. In the final episode of the batch, “Rage of the Ape-Man,” when the caveman and his dino companion discover an oasis, the former milks all the respite before things inevitably go to Hell. You want to spend time in that peacefulness as much as you are dreading what can go wrong, while also anticipating the eruption.

No matter how spectacular, carnage has emotional consequences that Spear is not quite entirely sure how to process. Consider the premiere, in which Spear vanquishes a foe but can only fall to his knees in sorrow because revenge cannot give back what the beasts have stolen from him, or when he gazes forlornly into the mammoth’s lifeless pupil, or his shocked it-had-to-be-done sorrow when he recovers from a violent hulk-like trance, finds himself sopping with red, and surrounded by freshly-littered corpses. No one is victor, only survivor. 

And that’s only the first five episodes. I credit the last episode for averting an easy cut-to-black in favor of a fade-to-black cliffhanger to process Spear’s despair over (possibly) losing his partner, yet I felt cheated out of more time to drink in the anguish, considering the show’s affinity for gradualism. But that’s only a shortcoming, not a flaw. Totaling about 110 minutes, everything about this starter set is thrilling. Tartakovsky is one of the maximalist animators of our time, crafting his world with the most visual and graceful extremes and having plenty of firecrackers up his sleeves.

New episodes of Primal begin on Adult Swim on October 26, 2019.

/Film Review: 9.5 out of 10

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