(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: Primal
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: When a caveman and a tyrannosaurs rex both experience terrible tragedies, they form an unlikely bond as they join forces to survive in a dangerous prehistoric world full of deadly creatures, mystical beings, and treacherous environments.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Genndy Tartakovsky is one of the greatest names in animation. As the creator of Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and the original 2D animated Star Wars series The Clone Wars, he’s proven to have an incredible eye for stylish animation, clever humor, and mesmerizing action. But more importantly, he knows how to tell a poignant story in a short window of time. With his latest series Primal, he pulls out all the stops to deliver an animated series about a caveman and a dinosaur who become unlikely friends as they try to survive a harsh prehistoric world. But this isn’t just a buddy-buddy cartoon. It’s some of the best animated storytelling in recently memory.
Primal has a deceptively simple premise, but each episode is an exercise in visceral and brutal storytelling, complete with breathtaking animation, savage violence, and captivating characters. What makes Primal stand out is that this is a story told almost entirely without any dialogue. The caveman named in the credits as “Spear” only grunts and screams while the dinosaur known as “Fang” roars and growls, behaving like a giant, deadly (but charming) dog.
You’re forced to pay close attention to every frame on the screen, picking up on cues in the characters’ facial expressions and body movement, listening to every sound in the wild, every note in the score. The metal-infused compositions by Tyler Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy, 300) and Joanne Higginbottom (Samurai Jack) adds more context, bringing a soft, soothing touch in moments of reflection and a booming crescendo when there’s an all-out battle, of which there are many. And I can’t say enough good things about the sound design, from bubbling, deteriorating flesh to the endless variety of screeches and roars from dinosaurs and a myriad of other creatures.
The extreme violence in this series should not be understated. This is not a cartoon for kids. There are flesh-tearing, bone-crunching, body-rocking fights that Spear and Fang engage in at some point in pretty much every episode. Some when creatures have their bodies completely ripped apart or smashed in artistic bursts of bright red blood. But that’s what happens when our characters are encountering the likes of a charging zombie dinosaur, a roaming pack of woolly mammoths with a grudge, giant devil bats serving a blood-sucking spider, ape-men holding a ritual battle fueled by a rage-inducing tonic, and cosmic witches sacrificing men to create children. Did I mention this series is metal as hell? There’s always something gnarly waiting to kill our characters in Primal, but they’re never willing to go down without a fight.
Though the primary drive of this story is survival in the face of horrifying danger, there’s some levity to be found in the friendship between Spear and Fang. Though it’s adversarial in nature (literally), their unlikely bond results in some hilarious exchanges. Without any dialogue, these are often conveyed in their glances and body language towards each other, or even in their blank stares. But there’s the occasional grunt or roar that is expressed in just the right way that it comes as close as it can to being dialogue without actually saying any words.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been so impressed and taken aback with a piece of mature animated storytelling like Primal (and I’m not the only one). Genndy Tartakovsky has clearly been given a lot of freedom to make this show exactly as he envisioned it, and even though it’s largely an adventure-of-the-week kind of series, the end of the first season leaves you with a cliffhanger that will have you giddy with anticipation for a second season.
Only the first five episodes of the first season of Primal are available on HBO Max right now, but the second five should be arriving sometime in the near future. If you have a cable subscription that gives you access to Adult Swim, you can stream all 10 episodes of the first season online by logging in through your cable provider. The second season will arrive on Adult Swim sometime in 2021.
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