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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR’ LACKS THE FIRE OF ‘QUEST’

Times Film Critic

“The Clan of the Cave Bear” (Mann’s Village), or Hannah and her Cro-Mag Sisters, was described as “a good old-fashioned tale with a spunky Stone-Age tomboy named Ayla” in 1980 when it was a whopping big novel. Now that it’s a whopping big movie, it all still applies--except possibly the “good.”

With Daryl Hannah as Ayla, the rising Cro-Magnon outsider on the fading Neanderthal scene, teen-age girls still have the feisty role model they had in the book and the movie has its saving grace.

Watching the outcast, brutalized Hannah teach herself to use a hunting sling, practicing until she can whirl it about her head with a nice lethal rhythm, is undeniably satisfying. Teen-age boys may also experience a certain uplift watching Hannah stalk across this primordial wilderness in a scalloped, off-the-shoulder wolf skin. But, for the rest of us, it’s a toss-up as to which will come first, the end of this movie or the dawn of civilization.

Novelist Jean M. Auel used more or less straightforward English for her detailed story of life 35,000 years ago. Research was her strong point; dialogue was not. While her characters had names like Iza, Oga, Goov and Creb, the great Mog-ur, their conversations, in the depths of Neanderthal caves, had an odd, trailer-park chattiness:

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“Mother, what are you cooking tonight?”

“Aurochs stew.”

Screenwriter John Sayles has had sense enough not to fall into that trap, and he has whipped Auel’s almost 500 pages into something resembling a manageable narrative, conveyed by gestures, grunted words, subtitles and a throaty voice-over (spoken by Salome Jens).

What Sayles and director Michael Chapman have lost, however, is Auel’s scrupulous detail about day-to-day life out here at the edge of prehistory, as one people faded out and another emerged to take its place. Chapman also misses capturing anything like cinematic electricity. They’ve kept the book’s furry feminism, in which Ayla emerges like some splendid Frank Frazetta woman superwarrior, and they’ve lost its immediacy.

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The real problem for “Clan of the Cave Bear,” of course, is “Quest for Fire,” whose simplicity and magnificence as both drama and anthropology created an almost impossible precedent. You could feel the wretchedness of those tribes, exposed to piercing rain and cold; you almost smelled their soggy furs, like living under 40 pounds of wet Airedale, and you understood their triumph in something as simple as fire.

“Clan of the Cave Bear” has its moments: the hunting of the giant musk ox, as the men scatter before the animal’s utter unpredictability. It has others that are downright peculiar, such as its crucial earthquake, created by jiggling the camera until vertigo grips the audience (OK, jiggling the camera and a fissure or two). The camera work is by the usually flawless Jan De Bont (“Keetje Tipple,” “Max Havelaar,” “The Fourth Man”).

In “Clan of the Care Bear,” for all the huddling and hunkering and smoke-filled caves, you are always aware of costumes, makeup, unspoiled locations. (In the beautiful details from the Lascaux and Pech-Merle cave paintings under the credits, you’re also aware that the film makers are a bit off, since this breathtaking work is Paleolithic, about 18,000 years off.)

The film is less a trip back to alien cultures than a wilderness weekend with some fairly hirsute and surly company. And that’s in spite of the best efforts of its actors; although Hannah’s hair and makeup would let her go unnoticed on any college campus today, she is able to give Ayla strength, resourcefulness and credibility. There is James Remar as the shaman Creb; Thomas G. Waites as the savagely jealous Broud, and Pamela Reed as Ayla’s foster mother, the medicine woman Iza, who becomes a beautifully realized character. (She even triumphs over the pounds of makeup that age her to look eerily like Yoda.)

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“Cave Bear” had one distinction: more producers at various levels than any film in recent memory--almost one per actor. The results bring to mind the old saying about cooks and broth. The movie’s R rating is for the brutal--and recurring--rape of Ayla and for the bloody baiting of a giant cave bear. After much time with this soggy, quarrelsome clan, your sympathies may lie entirely with the bear.

‘CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR’ A Warner Bros. and Producers Sales Organization release, in association with Guber-Peters Co., of a Jozak/Decade production from Jonesfilm. Producer Gerald I. Isenberg. Co-producer Stan Rogow. Executive producers Jon Peters, Peter Guber, Mark Damon, John Hyde. Co-executive producer Sidney Kimmel. Associate producer Richard Briggs. Director Michael Chapman. Screenplay John Sayles, based on the novel “The Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel. Camera Jan De Bont. Editor Wendy Greene Bricmont. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Anthony Masters. Art direction Guy Comtois (U.S.), Richard Wilcox (Canada); set decoration Kimberly Richardson. Costumes Kelly Kimball. Sound Larry Sutton. Co-head of makeup department/special makeup creation and design Michael G. Westmore. Head of makeup department Michele Burke. Clan body movement Peter Elliot. With Daryl Hannah, Pamela Reed, James Remar, Thomas G. Waites, John Doolittle, Curtis Armstrong.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA-rated: R (persons under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian).

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