Love in the Time of Dinosaurs
What's it about?
Tonight's nostalgia pic is "Caveman" (United Artists, 1981). In the year 1 zillion, B.C., a tribe of hunter-gatherers is struggling to survive in the harsh wasteland. The threats are many: Giant dinosaurs, huge insects, starvation, and not finding a mate! We follow the exploits of Atouk (Ringo Starr), a small yet clever caveman who has his heart set on a woman named Lana (played by Ringo's then soon-to-be wife, Barbara Bach).
|Our everyman -- er, I mean hero!
|A smoldering Barbara Bach as Lana (she's the one on the left)
There's just one problem: Lana belongs to Tonda (a very ripped-looking John Matuszak), the strongest caveman and the humorless leader of the tribe.
|Matuszak, as usual, is a joy to watch.
Caught by Tonda after failing to woo Lana, Atouk is run off into the wasteland, where he re-unites with his injured best friend, Lar (Dennis Quaid).
|Atouk and Lar
The two set off on adventures, meeting and uniting a band of misfits and outcasts along the way, including the well-meaning Tala (Shelly Long, in her very first theatrical role) and her blind father, Gog (played by the always hilarious Jack Gilford), who Atouk and Lar save from tar pits and dinosaurs.
|Tala and Gog
Can the ever-growing tribe of misfits make it in the prehistoric world?
Written by comedy writers Rudy De Luca and Carl Gottlieb, you may be interested to know that the film was originally co-directed by Gottlieb and special effects guru Jim Danforth (who produced the stop-motion dinosaur effects for the film), Danforth allegedly left the project with a full third of the film left to finish because the Directors Guild of America refused to give him a co-directing credit that he was contractually owed (frustrating, seeing how the effects required nearly seamless integration of the animated footage and the actors).
|Honestly, even claymation Ringo looks good!
A childhood favorite
My first exposure to this film was when it aired on HBO a few years after its theatrical release (I had to have been eight or nine at the time). As with most movies that HBO was able to acquire back then, they played it a lot, but I seldom ever turned the channel when it was on.
I love this movie.
|This scene made me hungry for fried eggs. It still makes me hungry for fried eggs...
|What do you mean, "it's not scientifically accurate?!"
In case it isn't obvious by the cast and the screenshots, this is a slapstick comedy featuring a large amount of visual gags. Nearly the entire film is pantomime, with the cast doing a lot of physical and expressive acting, because, and I can't stress this enough, the characters in the movie speak in grunts and an adorable caveman language, with the one exception to the gag being Nook (played by comedic actor Evan Kim -- the only person of Asian descent in the cast), who seems to be a time traveler from contemporary times stuck in the distant past (not really, but it is pretty hilarious).
|I remember him from the best part of "The Kentucky Fried Movie"
John Matuszak's Tonda is of particular note, as his huge physical presence and over-the-top enraged performances are perfectly interlaced with more subtle comedic tones when he's not throwing people. If you liked him as Sloth in "The Goonies" or as Ogre in "Revenge of the Nerds," you'll like him here (rest in peace, big guy). The beautiful Barbara Bach (who had trouble finding work after 1977's "The Spy Who Loved Me") as Lana is bronzed and ready for backstabbing as she gleefully torments the smitten Atouk.
The special effects are top-notch, and I would even say that by today's standards. This film is mostly a string of visual gags, and so the creature effects (even if they aren't "realistic") are hilarious.
|I love this guy!
The expressions of the dinosaurs are fantastic, and even though they're really just stop-motion puppets they emote so expressively that they come off as cute as they are threatening. The abominable snowman creature is just a guy in a suit, but it's still a great balance of scary and funny, what with his exposed buns and the fact that it's played by acting legend and tall person Richard Moll.
Even though I enjoy it, that doesn't mean that it doesn't have its bad points (this is an early 1980s comedy, after all). Although it isn't quite as bad as some, there are some moments that haven't aged well. Primarily among these is the scene where Atouk tries to take advantage of Lana after she's passed out from a knockout drug mistakenly meant for Tonda. I found this distasteful.
Other "jokes" that don't quite land include the tribe of misfits being joined by minorities, the differently-abled, and by a couple of gay cavemen. Funnily enough, while this was played for "look at the freaks" laughs back then, it makes the movie more endearing now, as the misfit tribe treats them all as equals and seldom plays the diversity for laughs.
Okay for older kids, with caveats
Should you watch it with kids? Well… I don't know. That's up to you, but it is an eighties movie, and so here are a few red flags to watch for: 1.) The near-rape scene. There's no nudity, and it's pantomimed to be more puppy-love than "sexy," but it is there. 2.) On-screen death. It only happens once at the very beginning, and it isn't graphic or played for laughs, but it does happen. 3.) Bully culture. The cave tribe is depicted as a group of mean-spirited bullies and abusers. While it is played for laughs and they are dealt with by the end of the film, it's there and might be triggering for some children. 4.) The swear word. One of the very few English words in this film is a swear word. It's one of the grossest moments of the film in terms of visual humor, but might encourage your kids to start using it, so be aware that it's there. 5.) Drug use. There is a cannabis-inspired plant in the movie that is used as a knockout drug (not as a recreational drug, though), and a dinosaur is shown high at one point.
Outside of that, the humor is very straightforward and visual, with enough visual humor and a short enough run-time (only about an hour and a half) that it seldom drags and might be able to hold their interest.
Where can you watch it?
"Caveman" is currently streaming on Amazon Prime for free with a monthly subscription as well as on DVD and a 2015 Blu-Ray release.