The Idiot Box: ‘Primal,’ A masterpiece of minimalistic, animated storytelling

A visually striking blast from the past in the present


The “Primal” title card plays at the start of each episode. It means the survival of the fittest at any cost. (Picture courtesy of HBO Max. Graphic created in Canva by Ryan Ascalon.)

Ryan Ascalon

Animation is more than just a cinematic medium for children.

 The storytelling in “Primal” is impressive. The show progresses its story with non-traditional forms of dialogue, relying on visual storytelling and sound design to convey emotion and build tension — exactly the creator of the series, Genndy Tartakovsky’s wheelhouse.

In Adult Swims 2019 animated series “Primal,” the show follows the unlikely partnership between a caveman and a dinosaur as they navigate a primordial world. The show’s use of color and lighting creates a stunning world that is both beautiful and terrifying. 

The environments in each scene are fully rendered to add to the grand spectacle. The only way the viewer learns the names of the two main characters is by reading the first episode’s title on their preferred streaming service.

Naming conventions aside, the lack of dialogue allows the audience to focus on the characters’ expressions and movements, connecting the audience with the characters on a deeper level. 

Almost everyone remembers sitting in front of a television and watching their favorite cartoon. One of my all-time personal favorites was Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network. 

I could not put my finger on it then, but the show captivated me with its unique environments, brilliant sound design and a fantastic soundtrack. And the fight scenes. Oh, I loved the fight scenes. 

As I grew older and revisited the series from time to time, I came to appreciate the nuances that went into the animation. The building of anticipation. The posing of characters and the masterful direction of focus in each shot can be attributed to the directing prowess and storyboarding.

Genndy Tartakovsky alongside some of his most notorious projects. “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” 2003 micro-series, “Samurai Jack” and “Dexter’s Laboratory.” (Images courtesy of Cartoon Network, Disney+, Adult Swim and HBO Max. Graphic created in Canva by Ryan Ascalon)

Tartakovsky is a prolific animator and storyteller whose work has significantly impacted the world of animation. He is known for his unique animation style that combines fluid movement with bold graphic design and his ability to tell engaging stories with minimal dialogue. 

His unique approach to animation and storytelling has earned him numerous awards and accolades, including several Primetime Emmy Awards. He is mostly known for his work on animated series like “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack” and the 2003 “Star Wars: Clone Wars” micro-series. He even storyboarded the ending action sequence for “Iron Man 2.”

Spear and Fang at the start of their journey in the 2019 animated series “Primal” premiere. They both let out a triumphant roar in front of a crashing sea. (Image courtesy of HBO Max)

The inspiration behind “Primal” came from Tartakovsky’s desire to create a raw and visceral show. He said he wanted to explore the violence and brutality of prehistoric times and to do so in a both authentic and emotionally resonant way.

An example of the development of the story without the use of dialogue is when when Spear and Fang start to travel together. The two  are seen in a montage hunting prey. However, they are competing against each other. 

Each new pursuit shows that Fang is better at hunting than Spear because she’s a tyrannosaur — he is a caveman with a spear. After losing to Fang repeatedly, Spear has enough and attacks Fang. 

The scene cuts to close-ups of them growling at each other and roaring to assert dominance. The two only stop fighting after discovering they have wandered into a nest of giant snakes. 

(L-R) Fang and Spear, voiced by Aaron LaPlante, come upon a nest of dozens of writhing snakes in the middle of their fight in the second episode of “Primal”. Stunned, the duo slowly starts to back away from the danger. (Image courtesy of HBO Max)

Only after banding together do they become victorious.

The snakes would not be the only foes the pair would fight throughout their journey. The roster of combatants includes a zombie sauropod, Ape-Men, witches, Vikings and a scorpion cult, to name a few. 

There are an assortment of the impressive enemies characters Spearand Fang encounter throughout “Primal.” Each foe is designed so distinctively from the others, from the slender witch queen made of shadow, to the rotting flesh bubbling and peeling off of the crazed sauropod, a visual frenzy of unique characterization. (Image courtesy of HBO Max. Graphic made by Ryan Ascalon in Canva)

One of the ways “Primal” could improve is with its runtime. The show’s episodes are a mere 22 minutes, which can sometimes make the story feel rushed. The lack of dialogue can also make understanding the characters’ motivations and emotions open to interpretation in some narratives.

An over the shoulder shot depicts the valley where Spear, voiced by Aaron LaPlante, lives in the 2019 “Primal” series premiere. The image looks as if it’s watercolor and the atmospheric perspective gives it depth to show the scale of his home.  (Image courtesy of HBO Max)

Despite the time constraints, what makes this series worth watching is that it allows you to feel the mood of each scene and lets you sit at that moment.

I would rank “Primal” among Tartakovsky’s best works. The show’s premise, stunning animation and engaging story make it a must-watch for animation fans and cinematic critics.