"Quest for Fire's" surprising charm and originality spring from a playful, humorous vision of primitive human behavior. Despite the "R" rating applied to "Quest for Fire," which opens today at the Uptown (in 70mm and Dolby stereo) and the Springfield Mall, it's difficult to resist the impulse to welcome it as a uniquely appealing "family film." The rating is no doubt judicious, considering the ferocity with which tribesmen battle wild animals or each other. The clincher must have been the movie's graphic erotic humor--a number of mischievous scenes are devoted to the sexual peculiarities of our aspiring ancestors. However, when all is grunted and done--Anthony Burgess contributed a primitive language that is never subtitled and never needs to be to make sense of the action--"Quest for Fire" expresses an eloquent partiality for civilized virtues, especially companionship, sexual bonding and parenthood.

Derived from a popular turn-of-the-century novel by a French author, J.H. Rosny, "Quest" was shot on far-flung locations in Alberta, Scotland and Kenya by the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, best known for the Oscar-winning colonial fable released here as "Black and White in Color."

Like most of the implausibilities that creep into his depiction, the bewildering international landscapes are finessed in the long run by the humor and sweetness of the conception. Although it's an inventive and attractive production--the illustrative collaborators also included Desmond Morris, who supervised body language--"Quest" falls short of great pictorial distinction. The movie's most impressive feature remains its outlook rather than its look.

The quest is undertaken by a trio of young savages who represent the best that remains of a tribe called the Ulam following a battle in which they're defeated and driven from their homesite by the Wagabou. In the course of their retreat the Ulam also lose their precious source of fire, a potential catastrophe since they know nothing about creating fresh sources. Eventually, the three adventurers--Everett McGill as the fierce but also intellectually receptive Naoh, Ron Perlman as the hulking Amoukar, and Nameer El-Kadi as the runty Gaw--return with precisely that know-how, nestled in the intellect of a feisty, clever, affectionate young woman from a more advanced tribe. Rae Dawn Chong, the 20-year-old daughter of comedian Tommy Chong, plays this adorable go-getter, Ika.

Indeed, Ika makes herself indispensable in all sorts of ways to Naoh, an extremely fortunate Neanderthal. I suppose it's a funny sign of the times that moviemakers would need to reach so far back for a satisfying love story, but there's no denying the romantic gratification embodied in the mating of Ika and Naoh. They're made for each other with a perfection one rarely finds in movie romance these days.

Naoh saves Ika from being literally devoured by a tribe of cannibalistic nomads, the Kzamm. (The relative superiority of the Ulam is illustrated at this juncture by their disgust for cannibalism.) The alien girl attaches herself to Naoh and his companions for protection and goes on to indicate an astute and unshakable preference for Naoh.

Their romance is designed to be especially flattering to women, in a sneaky-funny way. The wandering Ulam would be goners without Ika. She puts the slow-witted but teachable Ulam on to a number of wonderful tricks, including a sense of humor about themselves. However, the most amusing single refinement in her repertoire is erotic sophistication. During an interlude of sublime comic "revelation," she introduces Naoh to the granddaddy of pleasurably perverse coital positions. One can't be certain it evolved this way, of course, but the filmmakers' intuitions look delightfully sound.

Rae Dawn Chong is an amusing choice to confirm the virtues of intermarriage between individuals from disparate human tribes. She happens to be a merry racial mixture: part-French, part-Irish and part-Chinese on her dad's side and half-Indian, half-black on her mom's side. While this heritage cannot be deduced from her identity as Ika, who goes around in her tribe's bluish-white body paint anyway, audiences are certain to respond to something exotic as well as vivacious in her presence.

Although they're never meant to lose credibility as warriors, Naoh and his pals also are deployed as a deadpan comedy team. Indeed, one can't help thinking of them as the original three-man comedy team--the Stooges anticipated at the Dawn of Civilization. At the same time, Naoh's brawny disguise seems to bring out an astonishing heroic presence in Everett McGill. While the Ulam happily acquire the secret of fire-making, the movie itself proves a treasure-trove of amusing surprises.