Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Shelley Long, Jack Gilford, Evan C. Kim, Carl Lumbly, Richard Moll, John Matuszak, Barbara Bach, Avery Schreiber
(Turman-Foster Company/ United Artists)
US DVD: 17 Feb 2015
UK DVD: 17 Feb 2015
Caveman is an oft-reviled piece of early ‘80s absurdist cinema that most people would still dismiss as, to quote the film’s caveman lingo, “Doo-doo!” and “Ca-ca”.
Let’s take a quick look at what this film really is to get a good idea of what the hell was going on back in 1981. The film is directed by Carl Gottlieb, best known as the writer of the Jaws movies. It stars Beatle Ringo Starr as a loser caveman facing off with some shockingly weird stop-motion-animated dinosaurs. Most notably, the movie features virtually no English language whatsoever. Instead, the cast gruntes and employs a series of nonsense substitute words.
Sound ridiculous? Well, it is. 2001: A Space Odyssey this is not.
However, let’s place this little movie in its own little niche within its zeitgeist for a moment here. This film was released during a time in which The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was experiencing its rise as a midnight movie, Fantasia (1940) was being re-released and enjoyed on a completely different (and more psychedelic) level than originally intended, Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) was already in preproduction, the aforementioned 2001 (1968) was being viewed regularly “under the influence”, and Yellow Submarine (1968) was being watched almost exclusively by adults. So to whom exactly was this absurd little Caveman flick intended to appeal?
If you guessed “stoners”, then you’re taking home the proverbial kewpie doll. If there was ever any mistaking this fact, one look at the trailer will confirm this for you: in it, Starr’s character Atouk is prominently shown making one of his many discoveries from the film… that of a plant that, when properly consumed, causes the inhaling cavemen to, shall we say, “act funny”. This scene in the trailer is accompanied by the tagline “They don’t call it ‘The Stone Age’ for nothing!” The stoner intent is abundantly clear right off the bat.
This is far from the only discovery or invention made by Atouk, who is otherwise hapless to an almost Inspector Clouseau level. While most of these are purely accidental, Atouk is shown to learn from each experience and take that knowledge with him as he slowly becomes a more capable leader—albeit to his tribe’s misfit subculture.
Ostensibly, the core of the film revolves around Atouk falling in love with and pursuing cavewoman Lana (Barbara Bach), even though she is the mate of the huge and hunky alpha male Tonda (John Matuszak). That may sound like a far-fetched quest, even for this movie, but in real life Starr and Bach were married a mere ten days after the theatrical release of this film, so “Atouk” was clearly doing something right.
Along this strange journey of discovery, invention and, yes, silliness, Atouk meets up with the dense and clumsy Lar (Dennis Quaid), the lovestruck (with Atouk) Tala (Shelley Long) and the blind goofball Gog (veteran funnyman Jack Gilford). Additional standouts in the tribe include Carl Lumbly‘s hilarious Bork and Evan Kim’s Nook who, inexplicably, speaks the only English in the entire film, although only sparingly and reluctantly. Look closely and you’ll catch a glimpse of Richard Moll as the abominable snowman.
It’s easy to continue to criticize Caveman as a ridiculously dumb film, and I am the first to say that “it’s meant to be dumb” is no excuse for actually being “dumb”. In fact, that excuse only works when a film actually uses dumb to become clever. For this reason, one can mount a defense of Caveman, in that it seems like this “dumb” strategy was much of the intent of Gottlieb and his cowriter Rudy de Luca. As Atouk learns how to walk upright and teaches his fellows to do the same, to hunt and to find hallucinogenic berries (naturally) there are a lot of ironic, clever, and deadpan moments of comedy. While discovering cooked meat (including, not kidding, rotisserie chicken) and fried eggs (thanks to an accidental impact with a geyser) may only warrant a vague smile rather than knee-slapping guffaws, a scene in which Ringo Starr and his All Star Band of misfit cavemen accidentally discover music is both clever and surprisingly well done in its technical proficiency.
Perhaps to continue to appeal to the target audience of commonly inebriated modern Cro-Magnons, Gottlieb and de Luca also weigh many parts of the film down with immense silliness and unfortunate scatological “humor”. Slapstick side adventures with implausible situations, even for this farcical film, may add a few laughs, but they also slow down the already thin plot. That said, even some of these goofy moments tend to work for the film.
Take the stop-motion dinosaurs, animated by Jim Danforth, Paul Gentry and Hal Miles, for example. Much as you would never confuse the caveman evolution for 2001, there is no way to mistake these prehistoric “terrible lizards” for the more realistic monsters from The Lost World (1925) or King Kong (1933). These beasts look cartoonish and goofy, without any semblance of an attempt at anatomical accuracy. The Tyrannosaurus Rex walks around with bulging goo-goo eyes and frequently gives silly grins to the camera while some of the other beasts don’t resemble any dinosaur I’ve ever heard of. Then again, the animation works on more than one level. The dinosaurs are silly and non-threatening, turning a potentially lethal adventure into a slapstick joke. From another perspective the animation, while never intending to look “real”, is well done and less jerky than a lot of the stop-motion scenes of the day. These scenes are also well-blended with the practical effects; even the matted together shots of real actors with animated claymation from the Cretaceous clicks impressively into place.
(Yes, I did watch this completely sober.)
There are many surprises to be found in Caveman, not the least of which is that it is not a complete waste of time. Still, let’s not attempt to make a King Lear out of some elongated edition of the comic strip B.C., either. Caveman will not be for all tastes, and even with the cleverness to be found herein, this isn’t exactly what one could call a thinking person’s farce. In many ways, the experiment of Caveman was a failure, and the cartoonish silliness of the film on the whole (not just the dinosaur scenes) will leave many viewers cold as the Ice Age.
The 2015 Olive Films Blu-ray of the film has quality sound and video, to the point that the matting of the live action and the animation still looks pretty darned good. However, this release fails to help the viewer in other ways, namely some explanation of what the hell they were thinking when they made this movie. The disc contains the theatrical trailer, but otherwise no extras are present, not even a documentary or commentary that might have made some of the background of this film a bit more clear.
Then again, the main and originally intended audience of this film probably still won’t care. While even with the silly characters and characters and the PG rating, it’s hard to really recommend this innuendo-packed film for kids (one of the few English words spoken is profane in nature). But adults looking for a surreal, goofy, and possibly smoke-filled laugh-fest could do a bit worse than reaching for Caveman. Just don’t use it as an excuse to club someone over the head and drag them home.