The Tip of the Spear: Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal

Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal is a gut-punch from the beginning, following the caveman, Spear, through the brutalities of daily life in a prehistorical world, interspersed with brief glimpses of his silent inward life among the other creatures in his landscape. In starkly lined animation, dramatic shifts in light and color, and exceptionally well-paced sequences of action, Primal is visual storytelling at its most effective. Even the dinosaurs – particularly “Fang”, the Tyrannosaur deuteragonist of the series – are expressive, suggesting an inner world that is, if not exactly emotional as a human would understand it, sympathetic.

Spear and Fang’s world is one of taut moment-to-moment survival, wherein a single second can alter absolutely everything. Nature doesn’t sentimentalize the necessities of living, and neither does Primal; it is direct in the way it easily kills creatures in its path, and in the blink-of-an-eye shift such death causes those that are left behind to continue the struggle. In fact, one criticism of the show is that its violence is too swift and too exaggerated; while Nature is often harsh, it is rarely so quick in resorting to such gritty, pulpy viciousness. 

But there is much more to this series than blood and bone; there are moments of contemplation, of unexpected tenderness and connection. Spear and Fang learn to communicate and to embark upon a symbiotic existence, though not without strife and hesitance on the part of both. Having ended its abbreviated run with a cliffhanger, its second batch of episodes found the connection between caveman and dinosaur deepening into genuine interspecies friendship. It is interesting to note how the concept of continued grief illumines this central relationship, as the pair’s shared tragedy sobers them into cooperation. Both Spear and Fang could not protect their loved ones from being devoured, and so they protect one another – each going out of their way to ensure the other’s survival despite the odds often opposing the pair. Having failed alone, they decide ultimately that survival is a team endeavor – and this broadens from general mutual security into something much stronger, a bond forged in anguish and peppered with moments of what could almost be called tenderness.

Tartakovsky’s gift of pacing is heavily evident in Primal. It is a series which takes its time to be thoughtful, to be playful, to be introspective. Spear’s vocalizations are primitive to be sure, but his intelligence and sensitivity are made clear with details as subtle as simple changes in his facial expression. In the episode Plague of Madness, a sauropod deranged with disease, partially eviscerated and avid with bloodlust from its sickness, pursues Spear and Fang as they wander through a volcanic valley where the dinosaurs are nesting, and when, inevitably, it perishes – after an inhumane amount of suffering – Spear gently touches the ashes in the air as though they are peacefully falling snowflakes. His face softens into a weary expression, heavy with sadness for the creature that very nearly killed or infected him and his companion. It is but one of many such moments, weighted with the souls of Primal’s characters and the quiet horror of their tenuous existences. Tartakovsky treats these existences with gravity, but pulls no punches in illustrating the visceral brutality surrounding them. 

Primal’s animation is absolutely captivating, intense, alive with resonance. The art direction, lush background designs and detailed character design create a dazzling primordial fantasy world of jarring violence and triumphant survival, taking design ideas from actual prehistoric creatures and combining them with supernatural elements to build this strange, mythical place where a stoic but mourning Neanderthal and a solitary and sorrowful Tyrannosaurus are pitted against gigantic bat creatures, primitive ape-men and their bloodsport rituals, woolly mammoths and enormous, predatory spiders among many other threats. Seamless pacing in highly detailed, jaw-dropping action sequences tightly wind the spring, then slowly unwind in brief periods of quiet beauty and gentle honesty. 

It is not a series for the faint of heart, or for the squeamish – but those who can stomach a little animated gore will be rewarded with a resplendently rendered world and subtle, compelling character-driven visual storytelling. Its original run complete, a second season has already been greenlit by [adult swim], to contain an additional ten episodes. The final scene of its premiere season is a heartbreaking cliffhanger for Spear in particular, and it will be interesting to see the direction Tartakovsky chooses to take going forward with the development of the caveman’s character in particular.

Primal is an exciting, beautiful adventure. Blending the supernatural with the mundane in a primeval setting, eschewing most traditional tropes, it is a unique and powerful example of the realms animation can explore.

--Dana Culling