Film review: Alpha

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, August 17th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. And, Mary, we’re on a roll here. We just heard about Sombra the crime-fighting dog, and now Megan Basham is here a new film about dogs. Two in a row!

REICHARD: I love it! And I do love dogs, so I’m looking forward to hearing what Megan thinks about the new film Alpha.

It’s out today in theaters everywhere.

MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: While it’s a visually stunning movie that’s sure to please plenty of dog lovers, you can’t help feeling like Alpha missed an opportunity to be great. What’s there is good enough to provide an afternoon of family fun—and that alone is something to celebrate, given it’s one of the few non-animated movies appropriate for most ages. But it could have been so much more.

Think of the storyline as a reverse Call of the Wild, providing an origin myth for the puppy-love humanity has enjoyed for millennia. Young Keda is about to embark on his first hunt with his Ice Age tribe. Like any boy, he’s anxious to prove himself, all the more so because his father, Tau, is the chief.

AUDIO: My father always told me survival’s never certain. And when there are no more leaders to follow, you must become one.

As they progress on their journey, Tau teaches Keda the basics of survival. Seeing elements other historical dramas use to up their edgy pagan cred explained as mere expediency will give older viewers a chuckle. Are tribal tattoos just supposed to look cool and druid-y? Nope, they’re maps of constellations you can use to find your way home. And the fearsome black paint smeared over faces and chests? That’s bison dung. Because smelling like bison makes it easier to hunt them.

Not that there isn’t a minor pagan element—this is pre-Christian Europe and it would be strange if there wasn’t some reference to native beliefs. But they’re presented in the most restrained way possible, like vague references to being “guided by ancestors.”

The more forceful theme, as Tau voices it, is that “life is for the strong” and you have to “earn” your right to it. It’s clear that Tau loves his son and is just trying to prepare him for hard realities, so it offers an interesting discussion point with children on why this is the world’s logic without God. And Keda’s later experience presents a subtle contradiction to it.

When the bison hunt goes awry in a jaw-dropping scene, it isn’t being strong that saves Keda. It’s being merciful to an injured wolf that would have happily made him its lunch.

The film has zero foul language and no romance save that time-honored affection between a boy and his dog. The only thing that makes PG-13 Alpha unsuitable for the youngest viewers is the realistic peril a variety of ferocious animals pose. That, and the fact that the under-6 crowd might struggle with the subtitled fictional language.

Unfortunately Alpha’s failure to fully buy into the mind frame of its setting eventually undermines it. Keda occasionally feels too naïve to be credible. His struggle to kill animals at the outset is intended to explain his reaction to the wolf he names Alpha, but it mostly just comes off as implausible.

How could any child raised in a hunter culture where killing would be constant be squeamish about stabbing a boar? By the same token, Keda shifts a little too easily in trying to turn what up to that point in human history has been a bloodthirsty predator into a pet.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Alpha. Along with showing a loving father-son relationship and a strong traditional family model, it offers some truly spectacular scenery that refreshingly doesn’t shield kids from the harsher elements of nature. And if those moments where dogs first learn to fetch or come when called seem a little too cute for reality, try tapping into your inner-10-year-old. He or she will buy every second of it.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


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