Also opening this weekend:
Alpha—This new adventure isn’t just a Boy and his Dog story, it’s the Boy and his Dog story. The original Boy and his Dog story. It’s the seed from which grew Lassie, and Snoopy, and Scooby-Doo.
Well, OK, really it’s a Boy and his Wolf story. It’s set thousands of years ago, on hilly grasslands, among people who chip stones into spearheads, stampede buffalo off of cliffs, and revere their ancestors. Mammoths, wooly rhinos and saber-toothed felines are part of the local fauna.
Separated from his tribe and injured during a bison hunt disaster, an adolescent, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), befriends a wolf. As they travel together, we see the beginnings of all that will follow: The first fetched stick, the first whistle, the first invaded bed, the first guilt-inducing stare while you’re trying to eat.
Directed by Albert Hughes (half of the Hughes Brothers team that made Menace II Society back in the ‘90s), from a screenplay by Daniele Sebastian Weidenhaupt, Alpha tries for some paleontological and anthropological authenticity. The people speak a (subtitled) language, presumably invented for the movie, though a phrase that sounded like “cara mi” (for “my friend”) kept reminding me of “cara mia,” a favorite Italian endearment of Gomez Addams for his beloved Morticia.
Alpha’s original title was The Solutrean, referring to the tool-makers of Western Europe in the Paleolithic. The change seems wise, not only because Alpha is less obscure but because the Boy/Wolf bonding tale is the true core of the picture.
Inevitably, this story is harsher than the average contemporary kid’s movie—animals die, blood is shed. But it’s only a little harsher. Our hero Keda is given a sensitive nature that seems distinctly modern; his mother says that he “leads with the heart.” He’s reluctant to kill, even in a hunt, and it’s this that leads him to take pity on the wounded wolf, even though the creature was part of the pack that had just tried to kill him. Thus Alpha is, perhaps, not only an origin story for the beginnings of domesticated animals, but for the beginning of thinking outside the box.
In any case, despite a plot full of questionable lucky breaks and softened edges, the movie works. Briefly, I thought it might have a Dog of Flanders-type ending, but Hughes and Weidenhaupt manage a final twist that I admit I didn’t see coming.
The delicate-featured Smit-McPhee, who played Viggo Mortensen’s generous-hearted little son in 2009’s The Road, has just the right callow yet otherworldly look and manner for his role. He’s only upstaged by the wolf, an uncommonly beautiful beast who is credited under the name “Chuck.” The cutaways to the canine’s interested but skeptical facial expressions seem to connect with the audience every time, and it’s touching when the homesick Alpha joins in the howling of a distant pack.
Those of us to whom pets in general, and dogs in particular, are one of the great joys in life may find our imaginations especially stirred by Alpha. The human innovation depicted here, however simplified and romanticized, was one of the chief reasons our species thrived, and certainly a big part of what makes our lives worthwhile.
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