“Our story should be told. Where’s Jack London when we need him?”
“Our story should be told. Where’s Jack London when we need him?”

Alpha, the story of man’s first interaction with a dog, turns out to be a winner if 1) you’re a dog person, and 2) you can watch a movie set 20,000 years ago and believe that the inhabitants could have such stylish leather jackets.

The jackets look pretty cool, made of buffalo hide, I presume, with stylish fur collars. I think I would buy one if I saw it on Amazon (with fake fur and leather, of course). No way somebody without a sewing machine could’ve put these things together way back then. If so, they were the Versace of their day.

Directed by Albert Hughes (From Hell, Menace II Society), this is a sweet hypothetical story about a long-ago boy, lost in the wilderness after a hunting trip gone awry, befriending a wolf. It’s not a syrupy sweet story; the two go through a sort of hell trying to find the boy’s homeland during the onset of winter. But if you are a dog person, and I am, the gradual warming of their relationship as they rely on one another to survive is nothing short of adorable and powerful.

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is on his first buffalo hunt with his dad, Tau (Johannes Haukur Johannesson). He’s a good kid, but he can’t hunt buffalo worth bat turds and winds up critically injured on a cliff, far out of rescue’s reach. A distraught Tau leaves his presumably dead son and heads home to bang rocks together or whatever they did in those days. Keda isn’t ready to die. A vulture peck on his lip wakes him up, a flash flood creates enough of a cushion for his fall, and he has a new lease on life.

Unfortunately, that new lease involves a lot of vicious man-eating animals trying to eat him, his escapes hampered by an injured foot. One such attack by a pack of wolves results in the pack leader wounded at the foot of a tree Keda has scampered up. Rather than driving a spear through his wounded foe, Keda takes pity and carries the wounded wolf to a nearby cave.

Things start off with a lot of snarling and growling as Keda tries to establish himself as the master of the living situation. Gradually, Alpha—as the dog is eventually named—comes to appreciate Keda’s tendency to provide food and water while only occasionally acting bossy. The two join forces, take turns saving each other’s lives and become pals.

Of course, there was a first time that man walked up to a dog-like creature and thought, “Say, I would like to play fetch with this beast, as long as it doesn’t bite my face off. Maybe if I give it a biscuit it will like me?” That dude probably got his face bitten off, but, as we know, dogs became man’s best friend over time. The film contains its interpretation of man’s first tug-of-war with a dog, man’s first game of fetch the stick with a dog and man’s first campfire snuggle with a dog. Aw!

Hughes doesn’t simply rely on his sweet story to score a win with this one. His movie is often gorgeous, featuring majestic landscapes, excellent CGI work, and a damn fine dog as the title character. Smit-McPhee—the boy who cried “Poppa!” in The Road—is on screen for most every scene, relegated to a fake caveman language for his dialogue. All said, he delivers some career best work here, and sufficiently carries the human half of Alpha’s story.

Cavemen movies usually suck. 10,000 BC …sucked. Caveman starring Ringo Starr … sucked. Quest for Fire starring a pre-Hellboy Ron Perlman … really sucked. So it’s refreshing to see a film set in prehistoric times that actually engages, provides some thrills and warms the heart.

Be assured that, after the credits rolled on this one, I promptly drove home and gave my little dog some extra treats and belly rubs. Dogs rule, and Alpha is a decent enough guess at what our first hike with one of them was like. Now, if I could just get me one of those snazzy buffalo jackets! (With fake fur—I’m not advocating fur here! No hate mail!)

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