"ALPHA" — 3½ stars — Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Leonor Varela, Johannes Haukur Johannesson; PG-13 (some intense peril); in general release
There have been plenty of new movies for dog lovers in the last few years, but none quite like "Alpha."
Set in prehistoric Europe, Albert Hughes' film is basically an origin story for man's best friend. The exciting, inspiring tale follows the hero's journey of Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who befriends a wolf while trying to return home after a tragic accident.
We meet Keda as he's preparing to participate in his tribe's annual bison hunt for the very first time — expectations are high as his father, Tau (Johannes Haukur Johannesson), is the tribal chief.
To find the herd, Keda and his father's hunting party must travel for days, following ancient stone markers that offer testament to the tribe's value of ancestral tradition. The journey to the hunt itself is perilous, as evidenced when one of their party is snatched away in the night by a shadowy predator.
Things take an even more dramatic turn when, during the hunt itself, a bison knocks Keda off a cliff. Believing his son is dead, a shattered Tau is finally persuaded to leave, but Keda survives the fall and commences an epic journey home.
Thanks to a broken ankle, the onset of winter and a host of other complications, Keda's journey is much more imposing and lengthy than the one that brought him to his test. But along the way, Keda makes an unlikely friend when he encounters a pack of wolves and wounds one of its leaders.
At its heart, "Alpha" is a compelling coming-of-age story, following Keda as he learns to fend for himself in the harsh wilderness of life. The boy is timid and unsure at first — we see him falter when his father asks him to kill a boar the tribe has captured for food. But over the course of the film, Keda is asked to grow at an accelerated rate.
Naturally, "Alpha" also explores the relationship between humans and dogs, sneaking in subtle allusions to modern dynamics, such as when Keda throws a stick at the wolf to ward him off, only to see the animal return it to him. Hughes' film explores a powerful theme of family as well, both in Keda's connections to his ancestors and his immediate tribe.
"Alpha's" inspirational story and family values make it a strong candidate for parents on the lookout for family-friendly movie options, but the film should probably be reserved for older children. While never gratuitous, "Alpha" is frightening and violent enough to justify its PG-13 rating. On a more practical note, "Alpha's" comparatively sparse dialogue is subtitled and would pose a challenge for inexperienced readers.
Those who do check out "Alpha," though, are in for a visual treat regardless of age. The film is shot against a vast and dramatic landscape and packed with enough striking compositions to practically justify the price of an IMAX ticket on its own (the 3D option we enjoyed at the press screening didn't feel near as essential). CGI effects have enhanced "Alpha," but not in a way that's distracting, and the visuals never take away from the film's story.
Altogether, dog lover or no, "Alpha" is a late summer gem that should appeal to audiences young and old.
"Alpha" is rated PG-13 for some intense peril; running time: 96 minutes.