Understanding Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal
Primal is a genuine triumph of animation and storytelling, brought to roaring life by creator Genndy Tartakovsky and his team. Being dialogue-free wasn’t a handicap for this story about an unlikely friendship between a caveman (Spear) and a female Tyrannosaurus Rex (Fang).
The stylized, blocky character designs are full of personality and convey pure, clear emotions through noises and body language. The lack of speech allows the narrative to be guided by the images and it’s something that has to be experienced to be believed. Every shot is carefully crafted, making a compelling and expert use of space and color.
Tartakovsky wanted to give the narrative some breathing room, as animation usually keeps things moving. We spend some time just sitting with the characters, watching them performing mundane tasks or interacting with their environment. It’s in those quiet moments that we as an audience get closer to the characters. Watching the solemn and battle-hardened Spear finding a smidgen of joy in the smallest things packs more emotion than in the entire runtime of many bigger productions.
The stillness is usually disrupted by violent conflicts that build slowly before the carnage explodes in earnest. Violence is very matter-of-fact mostly, it’s brutal and impactful but not in a sensationalistic way. It’s more of a reminder of the harsh reality of everything having to kill to survive, with no attempt to sugarcoat any of it.
The show opens with the heart-wrenching destruction of both the caveman and the dinosaur’s families at the hands of a pack of predatory dinosaurs. And though Spear and Fang are able to get their revenge, it’s a victory that rings hollow.
Their world has been shattered, and they have nothing left but their own lives. Bound by loss, the two team together to survive and eventually learn to care for each other. They leave their homes and keep moving forward with no clear destination because stopping means dwelling in memories and remembering the pain.
Though the show’s prehistoric world is unforgiving and has dangers lurking at every turn, one of its major themes is the value of cooperation and compassion, something that isn’t just limited to human beings. One of the most poignant episodes has a clear villain realizing she’s not so different from Spear and Fang, as she also understands what it means to lose someone.
Apart from being a beautiful (if often devastating) examination of grief and rage, Primal has a lot more to say. The monsters like giant spiders, zombie dinosaurs, and a coven of shape-shifting witches are secondary to the beating heart of the story that is the main duo of characters. I laughed with them, feared for them, and felt sentimental during tragic events.
Having no dialogue gives the soundtrack and sound effects bigger importance. It’s certainly not merely background noise. Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom composed a score that is percussion-heavy, ferocious, and raw but also emotional and uplifting at certain times.
The series’ embrace of silence really pays off. It makes the experience even more visceral when things inevitably devolve into bloody chaos. And every blow that is struck, every broken bone, blood splatter, or face smashed comes with dramatic weight. The intensity makes you appreciate the few moments of respite!
I feel like I couldn’t praise the animation and the art style enough. It’s colorful, every frame worthy of freeze-framing for a bit. We have pastel skies that are a blend of wonderful hues. Inky blacks. Lush, deep greens for the jungle and striking reds for the blood. The influence of Moebius and Frazetta is palpable, but Primal is very much its own thing.
This is a marvelous-looking show, with beauty in every detail, even in its impactful displays of violence. Never sliding into the grotesque, it’s gritty and organic-looking. Wonderfully minimalistic and impressively animated – movement feels natural, not cartoony or weightless. Studio La Cachette deserves credit for their hard work.
I think Tartakovsky proved once again that adult animation can be much more than edgy comedy or sitcoms. The medium remains sorely underappreciated, as it was clear during this year’s Oscars (in which they referred to animation as something that is enjoyed by kids and endured by adults).
What to expect from Season 2? We don’t know much about it, but I’m hoping Spear and Fang will find something that gives them some happiness or a small measure of peace, at the very least. Grief is messy, as many of us who have lost a loved one know.
Having recently lost my dad, I have been learning how to navigate my new reality. It’s difficult, it feels awful, as there’s nothing that can really prepare you for when the time comes and what comes after. There’s a void that can’t be filled, even more painful because of the things and moments I know he would’ve enjoyed but can’t experience anymore.
And yet the world keeps moving. It may be apathetic towards our desires, but the people who love us are not. That’s the biggest lesson I draw from Primal – all we have is each other. Appreciate the people around you. Be compassionate and kind, even if the system we live in can be unflinchingly cruel. We never know when our time here will be up. As we saw with many unfortunate characters from the show, death comes quickly and with little of a warning.
Violence, savagery, the potential to hurt each other – all have been there since the beginning of time, and the history of our own species can attest to that. But the ability to be gentle and understanding towards others, even if they aren’t part of our own family, is our real superpower.