It's nothing short of amazing to think how far even animation's B-pictures have come in just a few short years. Compare Alpha and Omega, a new 3-D 'toon from Crest Animation (and Lionsgate) to Hoodwinked or Fly Me to the Moon — cut-rate pictures from just a couple of years ago. Visually, the newer film is light years ahead of those efforts.
You've never seen 3-D dog drool this real.
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 the wilds of a park in Canada. The pack is separated into alphas — the leadership and hunting class, who only breed with their kind — and the omegas, the goofy hangers-on who don't really pull their weight in the pack.
Humphrey (voiced by Justin Long) can caper about with his friends all day. That's what the omegas, mutts of the pack, can do. But there's no point having a crush on Kate.
Kate (voiced by Hayden Panettiere ) 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 father (Danny Glover) and mother (Vicki Lewis).
She only questions that obligation when she realizes her intended, Garth (Chris Carmack), has no howl. As in Happy Feet, wolves lure mates by crooning — wordless scat singing, really. Garth's tone deaf. And just as Kate's wondering what to do, 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 Eve 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 puppy love?
The Chris Denk-Steve Moore script has a classic odyssey structure, but too few incidents to energize the journey. There are funny lines and situations. Want to insult a wolf? Call him a "coyote." There aren't enough jokes and characters aren't fleshed in enough to make them 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 Vicki Lewis, as Kate's sweet-voiced but ferociously protective mom, lands consistent laughs.
"Go for the throat and don't let go until the body stops shaking," she purrs to her little girl, should another wolf get out of line.
And the 3-D here is only striking during snowball fights and caribou stampedes.
Still, the message is benign and the humor harmless. Yes, the bar has been raised for animation's also-rans and it's a pretty good-looking movie. 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. Much.