Alpha & Omega
What It Is
Wolves just want to have fun. At least when they’re omega wolves. According to Alpha & Omega, wolf packs divide themselves into classes, one (omegas) ever childlike and rambunctious, the other (alphas) more serious and responsible, trained in a special “alpha school” to hunt for food and defend their fellow wolves against enemies. The two types respect each other’s differences, but don’t spend much time together. In fact, the alphas tend to look down on the omegas.
Humphrey (voiced by Justin Long) is a happily carefree omega romping about in Canada’s Jasper National Park, until his childhood friend, Kate (Hayden Panettiere) leaves for alpha school. When she comes back, her father Winston (Danny Glover) arranges for her to marry Garth (Chris Carmack), the alpha son of a rival pack’s leader, Tony (the late Dennis Hopper, in his last film performance). This leads Humphrey to realize he has a crush on Kate, even though they both know she’s obligated — like a royal family member — to marry Garth, so that the two packs can be united.
Plans change when a couple of park rangers relocate Kate and Humphrey to a park in Idaho, expecting they will “repopulate” the waning wolf community in Sawtooth National Forest. Ever the good girl, Kate determines to return home and fulfill her duty, and Humphrey, eager to please her, agrees to go along. It turns out that she is more than able to take care of herself and him too: her alpha training has made her extremely athletic and a good fighter too.
Their road-trip adventure involves riding in the back of a truck and then a train, being chased by an angry mama bear, and following helpful directions from a French Canadian goose, Marcel (Larry Miller), and his English duck caddy, Paddy (Eric Price). These designated comic-relief sidekicks observe the action literally from above, noting especially the two young wolves’ developing romance. This familiar arrangement recalls any number of Disney movies featuring squabbling couples who are fated to get together and encouraged by funny supporting characters, from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to Pocahontas and The Princess and the Frog. And so you know how just this story will go.
Why It’s Fun
As Kate and Humphrey find their way toward one another, the movie offers a couple of other common storylines: back home, the tensions between Winston and Tony mount, because no one knows where Kate has gone. At the same time, Humphrey’s best friends, a mini-pack of omegas, satisfy the movie’s goofball humor quotient. And her little sister Lilly (Christina Ricci), also an omega, looks after Garth and soon finds herself attracted to him.
Thus the movie provides a series of parallel plots: the increasingly lively adventures of Humphrey and Kate, the adults’ conflict, and Lilly’s adorable romance. None of these is especially fresh, but they do make for a lot of cutting between scenes, which might help restless younger viewers keep interested, despite the lackluster 3D animation and very dull music.
The movie’s main lesson has to do with “rules.” Though the wolves have always adhered to their rigid caste system, the best way forward is to let the alphas and omega intermingle, to share roles and expectations, and to work together — especially when both packs are threatened by a stampede of caribou.
Who’s Going To Love It
The movie doesn’t try to do anything new, which means that viewers looking for what they’ve seen before will be most pleased with it. The wolves are made to act like and even resemble humans, with the usual animated creature characteristics: girls have eyelashes, boys look more muscular.
It’s helpful that Kate is so athletic: her bounding, flipping, and bouncing off canyon walls or tree limbs is entertaining, for the other wolves, who are duly impressed, as much as for the rest of us. It’s as if she’s gone to alpha school to learn more parkour rather than hunting caribou or fighting off bears.
What To Be Aware Of
Adults will understand more readily than eight-year-olds the movie’s repeated metaphor for “dating” (wolves howling together in unison). But even if you miss the vague sexual allusion, you may be put off by the banality of the howling-as-singing. It’s a silly gimmick, used too many times.
The movie’s violence is mostly very cartoonish and acrobatic. At times — like when Kate and Humphrey are shot with knock-out darts by the park rangers, or when Tony and Winston face off — the movie slows down and younger viewers might worry. But such moments are infrequent.
The oddest and most discomforting element in the film is Lilly and Kate’s mother, Doris (Vicki Lawrence), who repeatedly steps into the middle of tense situations in order to announce her own concerns. As fiercely protective mother, she voices her concerns in strangely violent imagery, for instance, her advice for Kate’s first date (“If he gets out of line, take those beautiful teeth of yours and go for the throat, don’t stop shaking until the body stops moving”) or her warning to Garth, if he has hurt Kate (“I will personally rip out your eyes and shove them down your throat!”). The joke is that she talks like this even though she has a stereotypical mom’s bowl haircut, but the language is just alarming.
5 out of 10
Alpha & Omega
Director: Anthony Bell, Ben Gluck
Cast: Justin Long, Hayden Panettiere, Dennis Hopper, Danny Glover, Christina Ricci
US Premiere: September 17, 2010