Everybody’s gotta eat—including animation hero Genndy Tartakovsky, who after years of working on beloved but cultish animated cable shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Samurai Jack, finally reached the mainstream in 2012, when he directed the hit Adam Sandler vehicle Hotel Transylvania. True to their subject matter, the HT movies appear to be basically unkillable—the third made more money than the second, which handily beat the first. And so one might suspect that Tartakovsky might be ready to comfortably settle into a life of dining out on piles upon piles of vampire comedy cash. Primal feels like, among other things, a pointed refutation of that idea.
Set before the dawn of language, the new Adult Swim series makes clear that the passions that have always driven the most critically affecting of Tartokovsky’s work—violence, melancholy, slapstick, and the pure, kinetic energy of bodies in motion—are still firmly in control of his directorial instincts, sideline in the world of monster cruise ships be damned. As seen through the eyes of hominid protagonist Spear—occasionally resembling a Pleistocene Brock Samson, ripping and tearing his way through an anachronistic menagerie of prehistoric mega-fauna—Tartakovsky’s vision of the ancient era is a brutal, bloody, violent place, one more than happy to make an impromptu meal of the weak. Unmoored from his home by a sudden tragedy, Spear teams up with a friendly carnivorous dinosaur and wanders the countryside, inevitably getting into gorgeous and extended battles with all sorts of giant, hungry monsters.
These battles are the show’s most obvious draw, and rarely disappoint. Working with art director Scott Wills and storyboard artists like Don Shank, Tartakovsky alternates fights between still, tension-filled stare-downs and moments of blinding speed. Spear is a tough proto-guy, but the show never shies away from how little and fragile he is in comparison to his quarries, whether they’re nightmarish bat creatures, bloodthirsty dinosaurs, or a literal river of snakes. Wounds wound, killing blows kill, and impacts impact with visceral effect, even as the show exults in showing off the movement of muscle—whether it’s leaping through the air, hurling a spear, or shattering a dinosaur’s leg.
And yet, despite episode titles like “A Cold Death” and “Terror Under The Blood Moon,” Primal has more on its mind than merely being a selection of lushly crafted caveman-themed heavy metal album covers. Spear and his dinosaur companion are bound, however improbably, by a shared line of grief, and the show looks head-on at the emotional toll of living in a world where killing and eating are synonymous. (As far as Primal is concerned, there’s no ethical consumption under caveman capitalism.) Not that there aren’t moments of light either. Tartakovsky has always had a knack for remembering that even the most self-serious of cartoons are still cartoons, and the show’s occasional bursts of dark humor, or the abrupt transition of Spear’s typical glower lightening into a sudden smile, can land as brutally as as any velociraptor-thwacking punch.
If Primal has a flaw, it’s one of length; at 22 minutes, episodes occasionally strain the limits of its dialogue-free, roar-heavy approach to storytelling. As an event, though—as a dose of bracingly original animation from a master of the form—it’s hard to question its few missteps. After all, everybody’s gotta eat.