‘Primal’ Is the ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ of Cartoons

Both works utilize visual, visceral action storytelling to maximal effect.

spear primal genndy tartakovsky
Spear in Primal, directed by Genndy Tartakovsky Adult Swim

Director Genndy Tartakovsky has made a career out of using animation to give us stories that simply couldn’t exist in any other medium. Whether it’s the heroic samurai Jack silently fighting a trio of blind archers in Samurai Jack, Mace Windu utterly obliterating an entire army of droids with his bare hands in an almost rhythmic fashion, or Dexter running away from nearly magical dodgeballs chasing him around the entire school, Tartakovsky’s work often says a lot with incredibly little, and nowhere is it more evident than with his latest project, Primal.

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Primal, which is currently airing the back five episodes of its first season, is like nothing else on TV. This prehistoric pulp show about a caveman befriending a dinosaur and surviving an incredibly savage and gnarly world is action-packed and deeply emotional at the same time. In many ways, Primal is action cartoons’s answer to Mad Max: Fury Road, and it’s only getting better.

One of the things that makes this show so special is that it is completely devoid of dialogue. Stripped of any words (though full of roars and screaming), Primal becomes cinema at its most visceral, forcing the audience to engage with the story on a purely visual level. Each episode tells a very simple story, mostly dealing with a caveman (Spear) and his tyrannosaurus partner (Fang) escaping some danger only to encounter an even bigger danger and using their savage might to survive for another day. The entirety of every plot can be condensed to single sentences: Spear and Fang run away from velociraptors. Spear has to nurse Fang back to health. Spear and Fang are chased by a diseased-infected dinosaur. On and on. This narrative economy allows Tartakovsky and his team to focus on Primal’s visual splendors.

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Director George Miller approached his action masterpiece, Fury Road, in a similar way. That film famously relied on storyboards more than on a traditional script. Though this became the bane of many of the actors on set since they couldn’t fall back on the words on the page for help, it did allow the film to rely almost purely on visual storytelling to create its detailed world and eye-popping action. Indeed, Fury Road feels like the closest we’ve come to a proper, live-action Looney Tunes film, as it uses the fight scenes, the gunfights and car chases that act as conversations between the characters. When Max and Furiosa first meet, their gut-wrenching fight serves as an argument between the two characters, showing the audience everything they need to know about Max and Furiosa, their motivation and their goals.

fang and spear primal genndy tartakovsky
Spear and Fang in Primal, directed by Genndy Tartakovsky Adult Swim

The same thing happens in Primal, where we learn about our wordless protagonists and their savage world through actions rather than words. The show is all about the harshness that Spear and Fang live in and how there isn’t really a villain when the world forces every living thing to become a monster. In the most recent episode of the show, “Plague of Madness,” we see a herd of sauropods decimated by one of their own after it gets infected with a zombie-like, flesh-eating virus by a diseased parasaurolophus. Soon after, Fang and Spear become the infected sauropod’s next target. There’s no reason for the sauropod to chase after the man and the tyrannosaurus, but the episode brings the tragedy of it all front and center to make sure the audience understands there are no villains in this story.

The sauropod isn’t simply killing its entire herd, the disease is eating it away and forcing the dinosaur to do these terrible things. Primal has some fantastic action scenes, but each one serves to build the savagery and tragedy of its unforgiving world. When the sauropod sees the disease spreading through its body, the show’s music turns somber, and the creature doesn’t look crazed, but tired and sad.

fang and spear primal genndy tartakovsky
Primal Adult Swim

Despite all the brutal action, Primal doesn’t shy away from slowing down every once in a while to focus on the emotional journey of its characters. “Scent of Prey,” the first of this new batch of episodes features nearly no action before its third act, focusing instead on Spear’s efforts to tend to its unlikely partner’s wounds and carry the tyrannosaurus away from the dozens of vultures and other scavenging animals. Even without dialogue, the episode manages to sell the audience on the relationship between its two protagonists.

mad max fury road coma doof warrior
Coma-Doof Warrior, Mad Max: Fury Road Kennedy Miller Mitchell

This is exactly what makes Fury Road a great movie. Its plot can be boiled down to a couple sentences too: “A group of people are running away. Then they turn around.” Yet the film does so much with so simple a premise, using visual storytelling to build a post-apocalyptic world full of different civilizations and cultures (just a quick glimpse of the leaders of Bullet Farm and Gas Town shows you everything you need to know about their cultures), while character development is woven into the many action sequences. We didn’t need someone to explain who Coma-Doof Warrior is to know he’s the coolest character in modern fiction—so the movie limits its explanation to that iconic shot of the guitar. Likewise, Fury Road knows when to go full throttle and when to pump the brakes to focus on character and emotion. Take the sequence where the chase slows down as Furiosa finds out the Green Place she was searching for is now uninhabitable, and walks out into the desert to let out a devastating scream.

Genndy Tartakovsky clearly appreciates what Fury Road did, so much so that he’s name-checked it in interviews. And Primal feels cut from the same cloth — a work of cinema and animation at their purest. The show uses visceral action devoid of any dialogue to craft a story of a ruthless world and those who try to survive in it with exquisite visuals alone. Though Primal’s setting is pre-historic and Mad Max: Fury Road’s is post-apocalyptic, the show is a welcome spiritual successor.

Keeping Watch is a regular endorsement of TV and movies worth your time.

‘Primal’ Is the ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ of Cartoons