THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR has its issues, yet while the club-thumps from bemused critics in 1986 aren’t surprising, it is somewhat baffling that the $15,000,000 ancestor adventure was an abject box-office flop with the well-coiffed New Age descendants of ‘Ayla’, its flush-maned Stone Age heroine. Jean Auel’s 468-page 1980 mega-seller—the first in a series of six about Ayla that sold more than 45,000,000 copies—would seem potent enough bait to lure the faithful, yet only $1,953,752 worth of grunting devotion entered multiplex caves, a where’s-the-muskbeef? 150th place for the year.
Way back (“back into time”, as a classic 1972 song would have it) in the Really Old Days, orphaned Cro-Magnon waif Ayla is taken in by a small tribal group of Neanderthals. Taught their ways, over the years she shows them more than a few tricks, since she’s an evolutionary step up the chart. Child Ayla is enacted by little Emma Floria. Middle school Ayla is winningly covered by 12-year-old Nicole Eggert (who later escaped from cave dwelling to beach-life as part of the Baywatch crew). By the time statuesque Farrah…I mean, young woman Ayla (Daryl Hannah, 25) leaves the tribe to go seek others (and hopefully a sequel) she has revealed a skill-set that includes grasping basic math, mastering the dispensing of natural remedies and the knockout ability to wield a mean slingshot.
Hannah does well enough by the demands (and restrictions) of the role, and beneath her makeup Pamela Reed has some nice moments as ‘Iza’, the ‘medicine woman’ of the band, who along with her handicapped brother, group shaman ‘Creb’ (unrecognizable James Remar) takes Ayla in tow. They try to protect her from jealous and mean ‘Broud’ (Thomas G. Waites), who resents the smart blonde newcomer from day one.
Directed by Michael Chapman, with the script adaptation rather surprisingly the work of John Sayles. Subtitles are used to convey the primitive conversations. Somewhat precious narration is spoken by Salome Jens, and the okay score came from Alan Silvestri. It looks good, shot primarily in stunning British Columbia Provincial Parks (Cathedral and MacMillan), though the sequence of hunting the giant musk ox was accomplished in the woods outside the village of Hughenden in neighboring Alberta; future director Jan de Bont was the cinematographer. The makeup, conceived by Michael Westmore (of the recent-historic Westmore tribe) and Michèle Burke drew an Oscar nomination. Alas, the goop from The Fly carried away the prize.
“Ayla walked with the Cave Bear. She had spoken out for Creb because she loved him. The sign had finally come. She understood the vision. Durc was of the Clan, and one day he would be their leader. She must find her own people. She must walk alone. Everything she had lived through had prepared her for this journey – and she was not afraid. For the first time Ayla felt the strength of her own spirit.” Well, it’s a nice sentiment.
Though it doesn’t (cave)dwell enough on how our ancient ancestors managed day-to-day, and the finish leaves insufficient justice rendered to the proto-brute Broud, the story holds the interest and the movie is more enjoyable than its detractors would allow, even if it does labor under the New Age’y wish fulfillment claptrap that took 20th-century Girl Power dynamics and insisted on backdating them to times and places where they would have provoked not dawning realization but a swifter response in the form of a bonk with a tree branch.
The late great Bart the Bear gets in a few roars, paw-whacks and chomps. With John Doolittle and Lycia Naff. 98 minutes. *
* Credit Ms. Auel for coming up with funky prehistoric names for the group: Brun, Goov, Grod, Zoug, Dorv, Durc….not a Britnee in the bunch. As to the cave-folk in the story vs. the critic crowd yapping from a safe 30,000 year distance—inelegant prom-brows vs. insufferable highbrows—who would you rather chow down on raw mammoth with?