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"Primal" (2021) Blu-ray Review: Genndy Tartakovsky's Bloody Masterwork

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

Quiet and Methodical Pacing

Primal is the animated culmination of a lot of things for Genndy Tartakovsky. It seems like young kids today would know Tartakovsky for the Hotel Transylvania films, but animation fans adore his older works such as Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and Samurai Jack. Similar to how Pixar was able to do so much without dialogue in the opening to Up and the first half of WALL-E, Tartakovsky always shined brightest in his storytelling when he didn’t rely on dialogue. Primal is an entire series based on that dialogue-less yet totally story focused concept.

Primal is set in prehistoric times. A caveman, known as Spear, loses his wife and two children to a dinosaur attack in the opening moments of the series. The same episode, a Tyrannosaurus named Fang loses her two offspring to the same dinosaurs that killed and ate Spear’s family. Spear and Fang team up to eventually defeat the barbaric dinosaurs in gruesome fashion. Trapped in a savage world with no one else to turn to, Spear and Fang begin traveling together as their bond is the only wholesome thing in a ferocious existence.

Tartakovsky’s latest Emmy-winning animated series has a similar look to the final season of Samurai Jack, but it also does a lot more with color. The beautiful backgrounds are so gorgeous and rich. Forests and jungle life is loaded with these layers of depth and eye-catching color gradients. Primal is unique in the way it seems to do so much when nothing is being said or going on.

A Massacre with Meaning

Yes, the series is gloriously violent and is totally amazing for it, but the calmer moments tell a story all on its own. Hearing the wildlife as Spear and Fang travel or that anticipation while waiting during a hunt makes those exciting and more action packed moments even better in the long run. Those incredibly detailed colors combined with a realistic and magnificent sound design make the environments in Primal feel almost genuine.

The bond between Spear and Fang is an intriguing one. They’re brought together over loss and grief. The two characters are two entirely different species and yet they share a similar sadness that is filled and repaired by staying together even when everything around them is trying to tear them apart or eat them.

In a way, Primal is as bloody as the new Invincible animated series. As fantastic as the series is, the blood and gore in Invincible seems to be outrageous to shock the viewer (and be faithful to the comics it’s based on). In Primal, the bloodshed almost always has a purpose. Spear and Fang only hunt to feed themselves and only fight and kill when their lives depend on it. Another intriguing aspect of the series is how important loss is.

Brilliant Colors, Jaw-Dropping Gore

Life is cherished in a weird way on Primal and it’s usually showcased after a character or an animal dies. Spear kills to survive, but is shown more than once mourning his prey. The woolly mammoths in A Cold Death seem to know the old mammoth that Spear and Fang kill for food and warmth in the snow was on the verge of death. All they wanted was his tusk so they could say goodbye to their friend properly.

All ten episodes of Primal are essential viewing. Primal does have a little bit of humor sprinkled in when you least expect it. It’s hinted at in the second episode in the hunger war where Fang keeps stealing food from Spear. The humor is showcased the most in the final episode of the season and typically involves Fang being the comedic relief with how protective she’s become of Spear. Personal favorite episodes are episodes four through episode eight.

Terror Under the Blood Moon is probably the most Heavy Metal episode of the series featuring Spear and Fang fighting off a cluster of raptors, a barrage of red bats, and a giant spider. Rage of the Ape Men is one of the bloodiest episodes of the series even though it begins as one of the most tranquil. Scent of Prey has Spear protecting Fang as she heals from serious wounds. A pack of hyenas is always lurking in the background of this episode. The coolest moment of the episode when Spear fights off a swarm of armored bugs from chewing on Fang and then uses their carcasses as brass knuckles to fight the hyenas.

Every Death Has a Purpose

Plague of Madness features a delirious zombie brontosaurus chasing Spear and Fang and it is absolutely as amazing as it sounds. Coven of the Damned may be the best episode of the series overall. It revolves around witches and magic, but it also dives deep into the backstories of both Spear and Fang. One of the witches relates to their loss. The ending is so sad and yet so satisfying.

The series is a short ten episodes. If you were watching it as it was released, the first five episodes aired on Adult Swim in 2019 and the other five episodes aired in 2020. The Blu-ray was then released in June of 2021. The Blu-ray release is a bit bare bones, but it does have some high points. The series looks and sounds glorious in high definition and it thankfully comes with a digital copy.

It only comes with one special feature; a ten-minute Behind the Scenes featurette. For it being so brief, it’s an incredibly thorough ten minute feature. Genndy Tartakovsky and art director Scott Wills shed a lot of light on Primal. Some highlights that are revealed include that they were aiming to make Primal a visually sophisticated movie of sorts with each episode. There was always a mood and a vibe that they wanted to set up. It’s emotional and sophisticated storytelling built around taking time. The series has fantasy elements, but it also has a ton of horror influences. They were heavily inspired by Frank Frazetta, Heavy Metal, and Conan. Tyler Bates and Joanne Higginbottom did the music while Joel Valentine was in charge of the sound effects. Surprisingly enough, the sounds for Fang had a good amount of chicken in it and a minimal amount of lion.

Loss and Grief Together Strong

You see a bit of Aaron LaPlante, the voice of Spear, in the recording booth. There isn’t a ton of spoken dialogue in Primal, but there is some. It’s mostly caveman grunting and dinosaur screeches, but it’s technically still dialogue. Seeing LaPlante get so sweaty while recording his lines is intriguing since it shows how devoted he is to the part. Tartakovsky worked with a French animation studio called Studio La Cachette to bring the series to life.

Primal is gory animation with a ton of heart. It proudly displays its influences, but it’s also unlike anything else out there with how deliciously patient it is with its setups and storytelling. Genndy Tartakovsky has always been a part of entertaining and unique animated projects, but Primal is currently the crown jewel of his career. The series comes with the highest of recommendations and is a great watch from beginning to end. The second season of the series is expected to air on Adult Swim sometime in 2021.

© 2021 Chris Sawin

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