For a story about the ruthlessness of nature, it’s no surprise that “Primal” is built on scale. The newest animated series from prolific director Genndy Tartakovsky is, among other things, an exercise in size, matching palpable fear and danger to the physical space that the source of those feelings take up. Through the lens of two characters, a man and a dinosaur, “Primal” is a piece of elemental storytelling that finds some real emotional depth without either of its protagonists uttering a single word of dialogue.
In what eventually becomes a chronicle of an unconventional pairing, Tartakovsky and art director Scott Wills uses this latest hand-drawn TV effort to work inside familiar survival conventions and chip away at them from the inside. “Primal” is not an easy protagonist/sidekick tale, nor is it a glossy, sanitized Early Man friendship story. Spear (the man) and Fang (the tyrannosaur) are joined by a shared tangible tragedy, one that stays present as the series progresses. Without the means to communicate more of their backstory to each other, the evolution of their partnership is seen in the rivals they learn to fend off as a team.
Beginning with that shared trauma, “Primal” certainly is unsparing in the way it shows the frequent cruel and undiscerning parts of nature. The show is unrelenting in its bloodshed, with a steady stream of would-be predators offed in simple, unsparing ways. That terror also extends to the mere threat of violence, as the central duo’s adventures bring them across a series of bloodthirsty monsters and the wordless cowering prey trying to evade capture.
But for all its brutality, this is a series that also allows room for some moments of levity to squeak through, too. They’re not abundant enough to distract from the show’s main ideas, but they’re enough to forge the connection between Spear and Fang as something other than a partnership of convenience. (The most “realistic” part of a human/dino exploring crew is that they don’t always agree on certain day-to-day responsibilities.) Part of that comes from the two of them trying to figure out the logistics of working together: sharing food, finding adequate shelter, identifying the skills each have to spring the other out of trouble if necessary.
So in the wake of not having any dialogue, “Primal” doesn’t resort to a series of gimmicks to compensate. If anything, there’s a beautiful way the series pares down these interactions. A glance into the reflection of an eye, a subtle change in facial expression, the tiniest physical adjustment when sizing up a potential predator. Without an inner or outer monologue to hide those small shifts, the other elements are magnified underneath.
“Primal” expands the scope of the series to include prehistoric creatures beyond dinosaurs. Some fantastical creatures that appear as the series goes on are framed more as traditional villains, but “Primal” also makes room for a variety of other animals to show that its two protagonists are a mere slice of the world they face. Any individual creature they come across has been burdened with the same task of survival at all costs. It’s a twin testament to the all-encompassing power of nature and Tartakovsky’s ability to mine emotional depth from individuals who flit through Spear and Fang’s orbit.
There’s a nice bit of story matching craft here in that, in the same way that Tartakovsky and fellow storyboarders (including Don Shank and David Krentz) have to figure out a way to fashion a compelling story with component parts, Fang and Spear have to make do with the tools at their disposal. The weapon that gives Spear his name takes on the weight and importance of a mythic sword, while both he and Fang slowly develop different tools to extract themselves from dangerous situations.
Writing them into and out of these prehistoric pickles becomes even more challenging when “Primal” introduces some fantastical elements as well. Not only do these characters have to deal with harsh weather and food scarcity, they have to contend with some otherworldly beasts.
Even when those adversaries stray further from animals with fossils you could find in a museum, the key to the success of this show is communicating simple — yes, primal — ideas in a corresponding way. When a drive for vengeance or the vanquishing of an opponent get expressed in direct, trackable beats, “Primal” is drawn in the imaginative, expressive forms that say what its characters can’t verbalize.
“Primal” will air over five nights beginning Monday, October 7 on Adult Swim.