Albert Hughes, 96 mins, starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Natassia Malthe, Leonor Varela, Jens Hultén, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Alpha is like a Lassie movie done caveman style. It tells the story of the very first domesticated dog – “a friendship that changed the course of humankind itself”, as the sonorous, booming voiceover informs us at the start. Instead of Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall as the dog lovers, we have Kodi Smit-McPhee as a Stone Age warrior who somehow persuades a wolf to go walkies with him.
Smit-McPhee is Keda, the chieftain’s son, a callow youth about to embark on his very first bison hunt with the rest of the warriors (a bearded, craggy bunch who wouldn’t look out of place among the 1960s Hell’s Angels contingent providing security for the Rolling Stones at Altamont in Gimme Shelter.)
We are in the late Stone Age era. Humans already know how to make fire but they haven’t yet discovered the joy of household pets.
During the hunt, the inexperienced Keda loses his nerve. He is chased down and gouged by an irate bison, which appears to toss him to his death over a cliff. The rest of the tribe departs, leaving him to his fate.
Keda might not be as macho as some of the other menfolk but he is more in tune with nature and has better survival skills. He tends his wounded ankle, fashioning a makeshift splint from stones and sticks, and stays alive by eating whatever bugs and passing worms he can find.
When a pack of wolves attack him, he climbs up a tree but not before wounding one of the wild curs. It is left cowering at the base of the tree.
By now, we can see exactly where the movie is headed. Keda nurses the animal back to health and it accomplices him on an epic journey across the icy wilds. He hopes to get back home to mom and dad, who’ve long since given him up as dead. En route, he trains the wild beast, who becomes utterly devoted to him.
The film offers a strange but undeniably vivid blend of brutality and sentimentality. Director Albert Hughes combines elements from caveman movies with some of the more whimsical elements you’d expect to find in a Disney family feature.
Alpha, as the top dog is called for obvious reasons, helps his master hunt down boar; does a bit of fishing on his behalf, and even lends a paw when Keda gets trapped beneath the ice. He is clearly well trained. There are no incidents here in which the dog poops in the cave or eats Keda’s slippers.
Keda knows the way home because he has stencilled black marks onto his knuckles that enable him to read the stars. He and the wolf endure the predictable reversals and near death experiences but this only serves to bring man and dog closer together.
The lyrical depiction of the friendship between Keda and his beloved mutt recalls that between the boy and the stallion, stranded together on a desert island, in The Black Stallion. Director Hughes is clearly using plenty of CGI but he still does an impressive job in portraying ancient times in a rugged and awe-inspiring fashion.
At the press preview, dogs were allowed to attend. Several turned up. The yapping they made at the end credits suggests Alpha meets with their approval. Humans should enjoy it too as a summer family movie with an epic feel and some true grit about it.
What younger audiences will make of the gibbering, sub-Flintstone language the humans speak (conveniently translated into English in the subtitles) is another matter.
Alpha hits UK cinemas 24 August.
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