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After the success of Star Wars the Hollywood special effects community experienced a real shakeup. The old guard represented by Linwood Dunn was more or less finished. Half a dozen FX companies were launched to do motion control work, the buzzword of the moment. George Lucas's ILM split up. One group moved up North with George and the other half continued in the old Van Nuys shop. An even younger group from Doug Trumbull's Future General outfit formed a successful operation called DreamQuest.
At first it looked as if it would be a boom time for all, but the shakeup didn't bring a bounty of work for the devotees of stop motion animation, the artists that each wanted one day to make their own King Kong or 7th Voyage of Sinbad. This talented group sorely lacked opportunities to show their stuff. The few movies requiring stop-motion went to established experts like Jim Danforth, a dedicated multi-talent and true believer in various "Lost Arts" of effects animation; other young artistes would drop everything to work for him. But most '70s movies misused and/or abused the skills of these independent effects experts, from the porn film Flesh Gordon to The Crater Lake Monster, The Day Time Ended and eventually Larry Cohen's Q-The Winged Serpent. Some of the shows were woefully underfunded and for others the producers just didn't understand or care about what would be necessary to do the job right. A close friend who edited The Crater Lake Monster complained that several precious stop-motion shots were cut out of the film for no good reason, in a show desperately lacking in promised monster effects. Director Larry Cohen shopped around for someone to create his Q monster after wrapping his shoot. His effects people had to perform effects miracles -- mostly unrewarded -- to animate a flying dragon and somehow make it seem part of the movie.
The "One Zillion Years B.C." farce Caveman was a bankable comedy idea in 1981. If the previous year's Airplane! could get big laughs from genre clichés, the never-respected caveman saga was a gold mine of opportunities. Actor-writer Carl Gottlieb had good comedy credentials, and his screenplay credit on Jaws couldn't have hurt his ability to get meetings. Producers Lawrence Turman and David Foster were top names as well. The movie needed plenty of dinosaurs, and in 1981 that either meant lame rubber props (At the Earth's Core) or stop-motion animation in the style of Ray Harryhausen.
Gottlieb's silly comedy doesn't do a great deal with the concept. Ringo Starr is Atouk, a lovable cave person looking for love. Cute Tala (Shelley Long of TV's Cheers) does everything she can to get Atouk's attention, but he's attracted to the shapely, aloof Lana (Barbara Bach of the Roger Moore 007 The Spy Who Loved Me). Unfortunately, the hulking Tonda (ex- football star John Matuszak) has his eye on Lana as well. Ejected from the cruel tribe, Atouk becomes the leader of a group of misfit cavemen, that nevertheless accomplish goals like discovering fire and learning to stand more erect. The resourceful Atouk repels several dinosaur attacks as well. When an Asian caveman arrives speaking perfect modern English, Atouk carefully guides him back to speaking in primitive cave gibberish. Also involved in various prehistoric hi-jinks are Tonda's sidekick Ock (comedian Avery Schreiber) and Gog (Jack Gilford), an old geezer who is also blind. Atouk's closest friend is the grinning fool Lar (Dennis Quaid), who has his own side adventure in an ice cave, with an abominable snowman.
The somewhat unambitious Caveman is frequently amusing but seldom really funny, at least in the live-action scenes. Carl Gottlieb's weak direction hasn't much of an awareness of what to do with the camera. He just moves from gag to gag, which may pay off for audiences that think big globs of dinosaur poop guarantee instant mirth. But Caveman does benefit from spirited performances. Ringo Starr is as self-effacingly game as always; even as a Beatle he came off as a good sport who appreciated what wonderful luck had come his way. Like everybody else in the show Starr is tasked only to clown about in the broadest manner. The basic 'who gets Lana?' and 'will Tala get Atouk?' conflicts don't amount to much, but Gottlieb gives them some effort. John Matuszak is a colorless Bluto type. Shelley Long spends most of her screen time looking frustrated, while Barbara Bach poses ravishingly in Raquel Welch's hand-me-down fur bikinis. Some sub- Three Stooges bits do make us smile, so the comedy never comes to a complete standstill. The great comedian Jack Gilford's gags are better than most, so he isn't entirely wasted either.
The movie was a genuine novelty in 1981. The dinosaurs are the film's real treat, not only because they're done well, but also because they provide the film's only really funny gags. Ever since 1925's The Lost World dinosaur scenes had basically boiled down to terrified humans watching big dinos fight and die. King Kong is of course an exception but even Harryhausen movies mostly follow the formula. Effects designer and director Jim Danforth initiated the idea of making the dinosaurs look silly in addition to just doing silly things, which was an excellent call. Randall William Cook's preproduction input added many of the comedy touches for Caveman's two marvelously funny monsters..
A big frog-like lizard creature with hilarious pop-eyes is too goofy to take seriously. Atouk rides on its back as if it were a pony, courtesy of a truly clever pre- CGI effects trick. On the set Ringo Starr rode a sort of rolling saddle arrangement, to put him at the proper height in the frame. Back in Los Angeles, the frog-lizard model was animated in front of the rear-projected Ringo, who is only seen from the waist up. Ringo's lower body and legs are actually part of the animation model. The match is quite good.
Caveman's Tyrannosaurus Rex lampoons O'Brien and Harryhausen's fearsome meat-eating monsters, such as the superb Gwangi. Overweight, clumsy, and slow on the uptake, the critter has a stupid look on its face at all times; his every appearance is hilarious. The stop-motion animators treat the Tyrannosaurus like a comedy star. Jack Gilford's Gog does a 'blind man and the elephant' gag, reaching up and rubbing some part of the dinosaur unknown to him. The Rex's blissful reaction makes what's happening obvious. After eating a tree known to have narcotic berries, the Rex lolls about doped-up and goofy, waving its tiny arms and rolling its eyes. Randall William Cook described the T-Rex's personality as, 'the Oliver Hardy of dinosaurs'.
Seeing these dinos playing prehistoric clowns is liberating, especially after a lifetime of watching animated monsters trying their hardest to be ferocious. Sometimes they missed the mark, as with the embarrassing The Beast of Hollow Mountain with its ridiculous tongue. Caveman really needed a better script for its live-action scenes, but its special effects comedy comes through 100%.
I read about the making of several '70s stop-motion effects movies in issues of Cinefantastique, accounts that have never quite jibed with versions of events told me by various friends working in those days. Caveman filmed in Mexico with the established and respected Jim Danforth in charge of the effects, directing the action for the sequences that would later be combined with stop-motion animation. Back in California, Danforth set up an effects facility that would enable the stop-motion artists Jim Aupperle, Randall William Cook, Pete Kleinow and David Allen to all work simultaneously, using VistaVision rear-projection setups in conjunction with impressive miniature settings. The technical composites are excellent, and the finished animation shows few signs of compromise or producer-mandated short cuts. Although most every shot in the film was designed and engineered by Jim Danforth, his name does not appear on the film, only the company he established, Effects Associates, Inc..
Audiences tend to like Ringo Starr and Shelley Long in Caveman, a film that became a happy memory for Ringo and Barbara Bach. They became an item during filming, which led to a long and successful marriage. But the film's real appeal lies with its funny dinosaurs -- it will always be known as the show with the cross-eyed lizard and the stoned T-Rex. It is one of the few non-Ray Harryhausen stop-motion films graced with consistently expert and creative effects sequences -- and perhaps the only stop-motion dinosaur saga where the dinosaurs are terrific comedians. 1
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Caveman is a very good encoding of this diverting comedy. Older transfers were on the soft side, but seen in HD at its full 1:85 screen width, Gottlieb's picture really pops. The Mexican location is colorful and the actors attractive. What we really notice is the improvement in the 'dynamation' animation setups. The composite images are often better than those in some of Ray Harryhausen's older color pictures, which didn't have the advantage of the new, superior film stocks available in the late 1970s. Only the occasional registration jump gives some of them away. The frog-lizard monster is a very colorful green, much brighter than the image above. The only jarring density shifts I see are in the five or so Howard Anderson traveling matte shots. We're also impressed by the visual variety in Jim Danforth's animation design. Rather than being restricted to movement left and right, the monsters do a lot of walking in depth. We're less aware of the limitations of the process.
The only extra is a clever trailer that sets up its gags well. The soft and washed-out image on the trailer is a good measure of how I remember the picture looking on cable TV.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. I've been able to read parts of Jim Danforth's impressive, minutely detailed career autobiography, entitled Dinosaurs, Dragons, & Drama: The Odyssey of a Trickfilmmaker, An Illustrated Memoir by Jim Danforth. Volume One is available as a CD-Rom Book from Archive Editions. I was given permission to read the lengthy chapter on Caveman in the forthcoming Volume 2 with the idea of condensing Danforth's account of the effects production into a couple of sentences. It's far too involved and fascinating for that. His telling of his experience on the film is the most compelling record I've ever read of what really happens in the special effects business. Danforth conceals nothing. The technical detail is also astonishing, and very easy to understand.
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