Genndy Tartakovsky’s best work has always focused on self-discovery in the midst of hostile environments. The iconic Samurai Jack told a story about seeking to return home from a bizarre futuristic world, and even Hotel Transylvania and Dexter’s Lab were all about coming to terms with unique identities in strange, otherworldly surroundings. Primal is Tartakovsky’s latest work in this vein, having just debuted on Adult Swim. Taking place in a fantastical vision of prehistory – and without a single line of dialogue – it is certainly a far cry from his previous creations. Yet it is with this stripped-back nature that Primal cuts to the core of what it means to be human.
True to its name, Primal focuses on the most visceral of human emotions. Even within the first few minutes of “Fang and Spear,” the series’ debut episode, profound feelings like grief, rage, and fear abound. Yet there is not a line of dialogue throughout the show; after all, it takes place at least a few thousand years prior to the development of intelligent speech. Instead, these feelings are presented through its starkly expressive visuals.
The show begins when a caveman known only as Spear (Aaron LaPlante) returns home from the day’s hunt to find his entire family eaten alive by a band of colossal dinosaurs. Immediately Primal’s brutal world presents itself: this is a world in which humanity has yet to climb to the top of the food chain. Spear may be a human, but at this point in history, he is only one of many animals struggling for food and shelter.
Within these first few minutes of the show, a wide spectrum of emotions appears. At first, Spear is filled with raw fury and a fervent desire for vengeance for his family; then, in the aftermath of the struggle, he is overcome with grief, and by the end of the episode, he even learns compassion and companionship. He alternates between blind rage and delicate care for life itself; devoid of spoken dialogue, this visceral representation of differing reactions serve almost as a miniature spectrum of human emotion.
Although Primal pulls off an impressive feat with its wordless storytelling, it isn’t completely perfect. In some ways, it feels limited by its placement on Adult Swim. The show is neatly packaged into a 22-minute box, which leaves some sections feeling squeezed; for instance, much of Spear’s character development is packed into the first five minutes of the show, when the individual moments of his growth would have been more effective had they had the chance to breathe more.
Knowing that Tartakovsky is involved, it should come as no surprise that Primal is a visually striking production. Its primeval world bursts to life with vibrant patches of color, with watercolor sunshine pouring down on shadowy rain forests while dinosaurs fight one another with bursts of bright red blood spewing forth from their wounds. Colorful visuals are contrasted with thick, blotted black outlines, making for a painterly effect that contrasts well with the gruesome nature of the world. Like its story, Primal’s visuals presents a firm dichotomy between violence and beauty.
This presentation is further enhanced through Primal’s exemplary sound design. It takes place in a world of ethereal, unusual noises – the roaring of fantastical creatures, the grunts of preliterate humans, and the bustle of an environment teeming with unfamiliar life, all of which are exemplified through vivid and evocative audio. On top of this, the percussive and horns-focused soundtrack further cements the hunting, tribal attitude of the show.
Primal is a brutal encapsulation of Genndy Tartakovsky’s greatest creations. It has the artistry and action-packed sensibilities of his previous cartoons, but what makes it truly special is the way it tackles bare emotion at its most essential level. By going back to the dawn of humanity itself, Primal is a violent analysis of what human nature is really all about.