Dreamworks Animation’s new 3D animated feature film The Croods is a comedy about a family of cavemen. It’s not a great movie, but it’s pretty good throughout: well-animated, good voice cast, and clever, if largely predictable. In the story, a prehistoric family of early humans (the film’s grasp of natural history is only slightly above that of the Ice Age movies, beginning and ending with “people were stocky and wore skins, animals were large and unusual looking”) who’ve always survived by following the “stay in the cave” mantra of a well-meaning but overly security-minded patriarch Grug (Nicolas Cage), are forced out into the wild by Continental Drift. Their search for a new home is complicated by rebellious eldest daughter Eep’s crush on their unwitting guide Guy, a free-spirited newcomer boy her own age, whose philosophy clashes with Grug’s.
I’ll say this for the film – Eep’s story may just be yet another retread of Ariel/Pocahontas/Rapunzel/etc.’s “Princess Seeking Autonomy” shtick, but almost by default she’s probably the most interestingly rendered female protagonist to hit animation in awhile. It’s a nice touch, firstly, that she’s allowed to be as silly and “dumb” as the rest of her family despite being the nominally thoughtful one, but design-wise she doesn’t look or act like any other cartoon heroine in recent memory. Whereas the Disney Princesses (and their would-be imitators) tend to have the same Barbie doll physiques regardless of their apparent parentage, Eep is allowed to have the same basic build as the rest of her family – squat, stocky, big shoulders, oversized arms and hips (they run on all fours, like apes), large ovoid head, etc. – she even gets to share her family’s Hulk-like superhuman strength. She makes Brave‘s supposedly groundbreaking Merrida look like one of the Pretty Little Liars by comparison, and could probably bench-press her, to boot.
In a further subversion of the genre, it’s Guy – her would-be love interest – who gets to be the “conventionally-attractive modern person in ancient-times clothes” character (I think the idea is he’s supposed to be a Cro-Magnon Man while The Croods are Neanderthals), and the idea that Eep might not be thought of a “proper” partner for him (to the contrary, he’s actually pretty bowled over) never seems to come up. How refreshing is that?
The rest of the movie … a little less refreshing, though it will probably feel far less derivative to its intended audience of younger children who are unlikely to be aware of just how much the “fictionalized cave men as metaphor for modernity” genre has been revisited over the years – and not just in The Flintstones. Using “primitive” tribal settings to comment on (or parody) the present is nothing new – for example, 19th century German writer Karl May’s Winnetou books use fictional Native Americans as avatars for traditional Germanic warrior values – but “caveman” settings are the type that have survived the best into modernity since there are no Neanderthals around to complain about offensive caricatures.
With that in mind, here are some of the more famous (and infamous) films that pre-dated The Croods into pre-history.
NOTE: Given the lack of clothing and/or modesty typically associated with the genre, some of the linked trailers here should be considered NSFW.
Technically a remake of a 1940s film, this British cheese epic was the standard setter for the modern “sexy cavemen” genre. It became a surprise pre-release sensation (and a box office hit) after a publicity still of neophyte starlet Raquel Welch (a second choice fill-in after Ursula Andress passed on the project) in her animal skin bikini became one of the era’s biggest-selling poster prints.
The film, overall, is pretty ridiculous. Dinosaurs appear centuries out of place for action scenes, and all of the dialogue is delivered in a made-up cave language (with no subtitles) as a cast of scantily clad, immaculately tanned actors act out a melodramatic tale of romantic jealousy between the “savage” Rock Tribe and “advanced” Shell People.
The superior pseudo-sequel to One Million Years B.C. lacks Raquel Welch (pinup queen Victoria Vetri has the lead this time), but makes up for it with more action and an even more gonzo storyline. Vetri is a would-be sacrifice to the sun (we’re informed that, somehow, the moon doesn’t exist yet) who escapes and joins up with a new tribe.
Things go south when she develops a romance with a man of the new tribe (the cave language is in play, again) which inspires jealous rage (read: catfights, and lots of ’em) in the other women. Eventually both tribes are at war with Vetri lending a hand via a giant mama dinosaur who has adopted her as its child (long story).
Nestled somewhere between a caveman epic and a Conan rip off, you’ll find this famously silly Italian production with a singularly nutty premise. A rogue caveman digging through the aftermath of a volcanic eruption discovers a hunk of spontaneously-smelted iron and invents the sword several centuries ahead of schedule.
As you’d expect, this boils down to an excuse for staging gory hack-and-slash violence in a prehistoric setting, but it’s nothing if not novel – particularly when all the iron-mastering starts a caveman arms -race culminating in the somehow more anachronistic feeling bow and arrow.
Oh, Italy. What would the low-budget movie world be without you? Here’s a one-joke comedy (“sex puns … with CAVEMEN!”) built entirely around the premise of watching a tribe of dopey cave guys who for some reason can’t figure out what to “do” with actress Senta Berger as a be-tailed female. Almost unbearably dumb, but popular enough (it was the 70s) to score a sequel two years later in When Women Lost Their Tails.
To date, this is the only film adaptation of the (at that point) widely popular book by Jean M. Auel, the first in what ultimately became a series (only recently concluded) called “Earth’s Children.” It’s best known for a somewhat schizophrenic mix of faux-history, junk science and (some) surprisingly accurate extrapolations about prehistoric man that science wouldn’t officially confirm until much later.
Darryl Hannah has the lead as Auel’s cave-heroine Ayla (yes, the same-named cavewoman from Chrono Trigger is a reference to her), a Cro-Magnon orphan raised by Neanderthals who functions like a kind of Mary Sue inserted into evolution itself. In the books she’s the first to discover that sex creates pregnancies, can tame animals Snow White-style and invents fire-starting, sewing, various medical and surgical procedures and the brassiere.
Here’s a singularly oddball mix of an attempt at a “serious” prehistoric narrative with the romance and tribal-warfare tropes of earlier, sillier cave flicks. Based on a 1911 novel and billed in theaters as “A Science Fantasy Adventure,” think of it as a gritty reboot of the genre – The Flintstones by way of Christopher Nolan. It’s definitely the most visually striking film on this list, courtesy of naturalism-inclined French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud of The Bear.
Everett McGill, Nameer El-Kadi and Ron Perlman (because, really, who else would you get?) star as three Neanderthal tribesmen who are sent on a mission to bring fire back to their people after their sole source is extinguished (they only know how to use it, not make it). During their quest they encounter cannibals, wild animals, other early humans both more and less advanced and spar over a female (Rae Dawn Chong) rescued along the way.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.