It's amazing to think how far animation's B-pictures have come in a few years.
You've never seen such real 3-D dog drool as in Alpha and Omega.
But as with any movie, this kids' film is only as good as its writing — the jokes, the cute bits, the heart. And that's where Alpha and Omega comes up short.
It's about wolves living free in a park in Canada. The pack is separated into alphas — the leadership and hunting class, who breed only with their kind — and the omegas, the goofy hangers-on who don't really pull their weight.
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Humphrey (voiced by Justin Long) can caper about with his friends all day. But there's no point having a crush on Kate (Hayden Panettiere). Kate is an alpha dog. She's destined to hunt, and to mate with the son of a rival pack to bring peace to their valley. She knows it and accepts that duty from her dad (Danny Glover) and mom (Vicki Lewis).
She questions that obligation only when she realizes that her intended, Garth (Chris Carmack), has no howl. As in Happy Feet, wolves lure mates by crooning — wordless singing, really. Garth's tone deaf. And then, game wardens tranquilize her and lumpy Humphrey and transport them to an Idaho park where they're to "repopulate" the place with wolves.
"They want you big wolves to make lots of little wolves," is how the golf caddy duck (Eric Price) explains it.
Will Kate and Humphrey make it back to Canada, maybe with the help of a golfing Canada goose (Larry Miller)? Will they get there in time to prevent war between dad's pack and the one led by Tony (Dennis Hopper, in his final performance)? Will alpha and omega cross that class barrier and find love?
The Chris Denk-Steve Moore script has a classic odyssey structure but too few incidents to energize the trip. There are funny lines and situations. Want to insult a wolf? Call him a coyote. But there aren't enough jokes, and characters aren't fleshed out enough to be interesting. Too many animated films hire name actors (Christina Ricci among them, voicing Kate's omega sister) and expect their "performance" to perk up dull writing. It never does.
Only Lewis, as Kate's sweet-voiced but ferociously protective mom, lands consistent laughs. Should another wolf get out of line, "go for the throat and don't let go until the body stops shaking," she purrs to her little girl.
And the 3-D is striking only during snowball fights and caribou stampedes.
Still, the message is benign and the humor harmless. If you go knowing you're not seeing Pixar's new version of the state of the art, if you tell your kids not to expect the last word in animated entertainment, Alpha and Omega won't disappoint. Too much.