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Review: 'Alpha' is a tender action-adventure for dog lovers

Review: 'Alpha' is a tender action-adventure for dog lovers
Kodi Smit-McPhee in the movie "Alpha." (Alan Markfield / Columbia Pictures)

You know Sheila the She-Wolf from “Glow” on Netflix? “Alpha” would be her favorite movie.

She'd watch it every day on a VHS tape, memorizing each line of Cro-Magnon dialogue, fashioning her costumes in tribute to the fur-trimmed Hot Topic looks sported by the characters and adopting a Czech wolf dog like the one in the movie. It's sweet, really, to imagine the kind of devotion “Alpha” might inspire, a film that's very simple, kind of strange, but will melt any dog lover's heart. It's the story of a young boy living in Europe's last Ice Age, his fight for survival and the special relationship with a wolf that keeps him alive. It's something Sheila the She-Wolf would really dig, and maybe you will too.

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When it comes to sheer spectacle, “Alpha” is a stunning production, especially in IMAX 3D. Director Albert Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht re-create the untouched vistas of pre-civilization Europe shooting on location in Canada, enhanced with visual effects. The camera soars and swoops across the prairies, fields and glaciers, creating the sense of flying for the audience. When the landscape becomes impacted with snow, it is epic, but less visually stimulating.

Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Keda, the son of tribal chief Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), embarking on his first big hunt. Tau is filled with pride to have his son learn to provide for the tribe, teaching him lessons along the way about self-sacrifice and leadership. The dialogue here, what little there is, is frankly a bunch of baloney — the kind of vague aphorisms about killing things as a sign of strength and worthiness that's essentially toxic masculinity and bootstrap individualism dressed up as naturalistic wisdom.

Fortunately, the sensitive and shy Keda is cut from a different hide, and he's the film's true hero. During the hunt, everything goes haywire and Keda is thrown off a cliff by an angry bison. The tribe must leave him behind, unable to risk losing their chief Tau to a rescue mission. He's racked with grief, but he must do what's best for the tribe and leaves his presumed-dead son behind, marking the place with stones.

Here begins Keda's remarkable survival mission, which he does his own way. All he takes from his father is a way back, a tattoo on his hand of the Big Dipper constellation. He's no great hunter, but a sweet and gentle soul: a healer, not a killer. When a pack of wolves attacks, he injures the alpha wolf, then nurses it back to health. Soon Alpha is by his side, through blizzards and predators, as Keda makes the arduous journey home.

“Alpha” is an epic adventure tale that tells the story of how humans and dogs came to have the relationship they do, one of devoted companionship and mutual support. It's hard to survive out there without a loving, warm-blooded creature by your side, whether it's the Ice Age or the 21st century. Thematically, “Alpha” nails the idea that our survival is dependent on the love and support of others, and the idea emerges from the haze of faux fur and war paint in which “Alpha” is coated.

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‘Alpha'

Rated: PG-13, for some intense peril

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday in general release

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