The ‘boy and his dog’ story gets a fresh twist in this spectacularly beautiful coming-of-age, Ice Age fable in which a young hunter and a lone wolf form the original bond that will make dogs man’s best friend down through the ages.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is the human star as Keda, a tribal chief’s fearful, scrawny son on his first hunt to prove his manhood, somewhere in Europe 20,000 years ago. Thrown off a cliff by an enraged bison, he is left for dead by his grieving father, but the lad is tougher than he looks. Thus begins a perilous wilderness survival adventure in which he tends to his gruesome injuries and struggles the long way home alone, with only the stars to guide him across a vast, snowy, prehistoric world. One of his close brushes with death has him escaping a wolf pack, but the sensitive boy empathises with the injured pack leader (the Alpha of the title) left behind, so he carries it to shelter and nurses it. Slowly the fear and mistrust between boy and wolf give way to sharing warmth, hunting together and accidentally inventing the game of Fetch.
It is a good, old-fashioned yarn that feels sufficiently authentic to overcome any scientific or historical quibbling. Along with the cornier moments — guaranteed to make doggy people chuckle and cry “Awwwww” — there are heart-stopping moments of suspense, well-executed action sequences and absolutely glorious visuals that make Canadian and Icelandic locations an awesomely majestic, untouched natural world. An inventive underwater sequence is breathtaking.
Dialogue, in a specially made up language that is subtitled, is minimal. Like any animal lover and his furry companion Keda and Alpha find their own way of communicating and we don’t need subtitles to understand what they are thinking or feeling. Food good! Sabre toothed tiger bad!
Smit-McPhee’s partner in peril is played by a handsome Czechoslovakian Wolf Dog called Chuck, and what a clever boy he is. The chemistry and affection between the two are winning. And while the familiar formula is not terribly deep, there are some nice twists to the tale and it is marvellous to see such a big scale, picture that is something of a defiant, heartwarming throwback among the superhero in spandex franchises that fill our summers.
Is Alpha suitable for kids? Here are our parents’ notes...
Please note that this is a 12A certificate in the UK so is aimed at older children and adults.
There are several very scary moments, including a stampede of maddened bison and animal attacks from a variety of dangerous predators (wolves, hyenas, sabre-toothed tigers snatching people in the dark). Keda’s and Alpha’s injuries from accidents and attacks are graphic. Young children may be frightened by these and a scene in which Keda falls through ice and is trapped underwater.
There are a few close ups of injuries, including a moment when a bird pecks at a bloody face.
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