PLOT A Cro-Magnon boy and a wolf begin a relationship that will last for millennia.
CAST Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chuck
RATED PG-13 (bloodshed and peril)
BOTTOM LINE A rugged adventure story for young viewers with strong stomachs.
Albert Hughes’ “Alpha” feels like a movie from another era. For starters, it’s set in the last Ice Age and focuses on a Cro-Magnon boy, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who gets separated from his tribe. As he tries to make his way home, Keda nurses an injured wolf back to health and, in the process, lays the evolutionary groundwork for what we now call man’s best friend.
“Alpha” is also part of a genre that time forgot: The wilderness movie for the preteen crowd. There was a time when such stuff was fairly common, from classic Westerns to television’s “Gentle Ben.” The great outdoors, where mettle is tested and primal lessons learned, has since been replaced by wizarding schools and Hunger Games, which perhaps better reflect modern lives (and certainly make better use of CGI). Today, tales of hunting and fishing can seem a little quaint and — here’s the clincher — a little male.
On its face, “Alpha” seems like a boys’ movie from start to finish. Keda, the son of Chief Tau (Johannes Haukur Johanneson), must make his first bison hunt, a test of his leadership abilities. (“He leads with his heart, not his spear,” Keda’s worried mother says in a primitive language created for the film.) The hunt doesn’t go well. In a dazzling sequence, Keda is stampeded, tossed off a cliff and left for dead.
Smit-McPhee, who carries nearly this entire movie alone, has an impressive emotional transparency, as does Chuck, the Czech wolf-dog who plays Alpha. Together, they share a number of bonding moments: hunting, frolicking, defending their turf, huddling around a fire. The flashy-jumpy direction from Hughes (half of the sibling team that directed “Menace II Society”) gets distracting, but at its best “Alpha” is satisfyingly rough and rugged. You might think of it as a kid-appropriate version of “The Revenant.”
“Alpha” misses a few opportunities for drama and grandeur that seem built into the concept. What does Alpha teach Keda about himself? Where’s the childhood fear Keda must conquer to become a man? Lastly, where’s that long, triumphant shot of Keda, in silhouette, returning to his village with — can it be? — a wolf trotting coolly at his side?
To his credit, Hughes has his own ideas. He even has something to say about the assumptions we make about violence and maleness. In the end, “Alpha” puts its own stamp on the age-old story of a boy and his dog.