The world of animation is a better place when Genndy Tartakovsky is free to do his thing. The creator of Samurai Jack and Dexter's Laboratory unfortunately had a ton of projects fall apart throughout the late 2000s and most of the '10s; it seemed as if he couldn't get anything made, aside from a single season of the gone-too-soon Sym-Bionic Titan and a bunch of Hotel Transylvania movies. The 2017 Adult Swim revival of Samurai Jack, however, served as proof Tartakovsky is still one of the most visionary animation directors around. Now, Adult Swim's offering us more Tartakovsky goodness with the miniseries Primal. Five episodes have aired, with five more reportedly set to premiere sometime next year.
Set in a decidedly historically inaccurate version of prehistoric times, Primal follows the adventures of a caveman and a T-Rex, bonded through shared tragedy, and joining forces to survive the savagery of nature. The caveman is officially named Spear, and the T-Rex is named Fang, but that's kind of beside the point in a series without a single word of spoken dialogue. Those long stretches of silent visual storytelling that were frequent highlights of Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars now stretch for a whole miniseries.
Tartakovsky's talent for such visual storytelling is practically unmatched on television. Primal is an incredible series to look at, stunning in both moments of stillness and in its ultraviolent action. While the animation has its auteur's fingerprints all over it, Primal stands out stylistically from his past works. Animated by the French studio La Cachette, Primal's artwork is intensely detailed where Samurai Jack's was minimalistic. Befitting the material, there's a rougher, grittier quality to the animation, less consistently smooth but more lively.
As for the story being told, it's solidly entertaining pulp. Naturally there are limitations to what this show can do: it doesn't have the psychological complexity of the final season of Samurai Jack, and it's shorter on -- but not entirely bereft of -- humor compared to Tartakovsky's other series. But it knows how to work emotions, and make you care about its characters. Spear's grief, his memories of fatherhood and artistic expression with cave paintings and shadow puppets humanize a man who's still evolving. Fang is wisely not given anthropomorphized expressions, but nevertheless demonstrates a clear personality in her own way.
Structurally, it's curious knowing that Primal still has five more episodes remaining. The first two episodes are more or less an ongoing story, where the third and fourth are self-contained adventures; the fifth plays as a captivating, but somewhat-confusing and rushed, wrap-up. Knowing there's more to come raises the question: Is that ending a fake-out, or a sign of a radically different second half?
The self-contained episodes are the stand-outs. "A Cold Death" is the most impactful story, shifting perspective away from the main duo and making viewers sympathize with the mammoths they must hunt for survival. "Terror Under the Blood Moon," meanwhile, is the most fun, action-wise, taking advantage of the fantasy nature of the setting for some spooky and insane monster battles.
The episodic, and so far incomplete, nature of Primal makes one wonder how Academy Awards voters have reacted seeing these five episodes stitched together into movie form for Oscar consideration. With the best segments the most disconnected from the overarching story, and the fifth episode taking on the possibly-deceptive appearance of an ending, it's probably a dark horse at best. But watching Primal on the small screen, you can imagine just how overpowering an experience witnessing this caliber of action on the big screen must be like.