Thursday, December 17, 2020

"Primal," Season 1: review

Genndy Tartakovsky's 2019 "Primal" is an animated TV series (for the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim time slot) about a bereaved caveman who befriends an equally bereaved dinosaur.  I know:  cavemen and dinosaurs didn't live in the same epoch.  The series understands this, and it completely does away with any and all vérité elements.  That said, the world of "Primal" is as primal as the series title—full of danger in the form of anachronistic predators, black magic, and primitive societies that would be more at home in a Dungeons & Dragons setting than in the real world.  This is full-on fantasy—less Michael Crichton and more Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Our protagonist, called Spear in the credits, is a grunting but smart and capable caveman who loses his family to a pack of ravenous dinosaurs.  Initially contemplating suicide, Spear decides to soldier on, and he encounters Fang, a tyrannosaur who loses her hatchlings to the same dinosaurs that killed Spear's family.  In the first episode of Season 1, Spear sees the nasty dinosaurs attacking Fang's brood, and he does what he can to help, but he is unable to save Fang's offspring.  As he leaves the scene of the battle, Spear hears huge footsteps behind him.  He turns around and sees Fang, also bereaved and desolate, sadly following him.  She recognizes that Spear had tried to help her, and with no children to care for, she has nothing else to live for.  The episode ends with Spear triumphantly mounting Fang like a horse and roaring at the sky, now ready to take on the world.  

The rest of the season explores the nature of the duo's relationship.  At first, Fang treats the partnership as a competition, and she easily out-hunts Spear, who is only man-sized, after all.  Eventually, though, Fang learns that Spear's human ingenuity makes it better for her to treat him as an equal than as an inferior rival, and the two form a bond of friendship and care, helping each other out of a series of perilous situations.  

Most of "Primal" is without dialogue, unless roaring and grunting can be considered dialogue.  In the final episode of Season 1, Spear and Fang encounter an escaped slave woman who names herself Mira, and this is the first time, in ten episodes, that we hear spoken words.  Mira speaks in some sort of ancient tongue (at a guess, it's based on an actual language*); she also seems to worship the moon, and she has a scorpion tattooed on the back of her shaven head.  The episode ends on a cliffhanger note, causing Spear to utter his first word:  "Mira."  I imagine that Season 2 will explore the sex/gender politics of adding Mira to the Spear/Fang mix:  Fang might feel jealous now that Mira is a potential object for Spear's affections.

The series's world-building is, as I noted, utterly unrealistic, but it retains a feeling of authenticity:  this is a place where everything is out to kill you—a harsh world with predators around every corner.  Only the clever, the vigilant, and the cooperative can survive.  Tartakovsky, who worked on "Samurai Jack" among other cartoons, offers a lush color palette coupled with a chunky way of drawing the protags and the side characters that reminds me of the blocky superheroes in Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns.  Although filled with anachronisms and implausibilities, this world feels convincingly dangerous, and it's the perfect crucible for the character-building that happens in both Spear and Fang.

Overall, "Primal" makes for compelling viewing.  With all of its blood and gore, it's adult animation for certain, but the visceral moments are balanced by more thoughtful, sentimental ones.  Highly recommended.

*If you want to hear a funky alien tongue, listen to the language spoken by the Nelvaan rodent-people in Chapter 24 of the 2003 "Clone Wars" cartoon (also a Tartakovsky creation).

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