Oh dear, oh dear …
The endless cycle of CG animated fare really cannot help but run out of steam sometimes. And this wilderness odyssey of boy wolf meets girl wolf scrapes the barrel of animal capers and finds that there really isn't much fun to be had down there. Let's see, thought the producers of this characterless exercise in four-legged fantasy, we've had clownfish, lions, mammoths, deer, bears and man-cubs; we've swung with monkeys and hung out with elephants and bees; there's been stallions, mice and cats. In fact, there's been tales wrapped around all manner of tails, and the menagerie of colourful critter antics will be with us until the end of time. Probably. But even if wolves have played cameos in many animated movies, they haven't been the recipients of their own feature-length story. Until now. And, sadly, under the listless helm of directors Ben Gluck and Anthony Bell, the result has not been worth the wait.
In a sort of furry take on West Side Story, two rival packs of wolves in the Jasper National Park are to be united by the pairing-up of the prime alpha female, Kate (Hayden Panettierre) from one group with the Adonis-like alpha male, Garth (Chris Carmack) from the other, a coupling that has been arranged in the hope that peace and harmony will then be formed between all. Naturally, the course of true love does not run smoothly, especially when scruffy carefree omega wolf, Humphrey (Justin Long), who has long adored Kate, sticks his lower-class snout into the affair. When both Kate and Humphrey are tranquillised by rangers and driven out of Canada and down to Idaho to help repopulate dwindling wolf numbers, the two determine to work together in an effort to get back home in time for the impending marriage ceremony … before war breaks out between the packs. No-one is going to be surprised to discover that Kate will see Humphrey's true worth shine through during their chaotic cross-country odyssey, and that this Alpha and Omega team will become the real romantic deal. Along the way, the two will encounter trials and tribulations, such as gun-toting red-necks and a bear-attack, and strike up a bond with a couple of golf-playing birds who appear to understand the underlying emotions of their plight and are willing to aid them in their journey in that typically annoying sidekick fashion so beloved by the enduring format.
With a talented voice cast that includes Danny Glover and Vicki Lewis as Kate's parents and the leaders of their pack, and even Dennis Hopper in one of his last roles as gangster-voiced Tony, the leader of the rival pack, and the sort of helter-skelter narrative that doesn't allow its homely, live-and-let-live message to come without copious slapstick, irreverent attitudes and typical off-the-peg kid-pleasing scenarios, you would think that Gluck, Bell and Lionsgate were on to a winner with this. But Alpha and Omega completely misfires and swiftly becomes an exceedingly lazy rip-off of pretty much every furry family film that has padded across the screen, but most notably The Lion King and The Lady And The Tramp. We've got the sassy and rather snooty fit-girl who is so far out of reach of the social underdog, the rivalry of two proud clans, each with grand ideas for the rule of the territory, the jokey and supposedly loveable hangers-on who decorate the film whenever the leads hit against a stubborn story-block, and the last-minute euphoria lifted all-too-obviously out of an apparent tragedy. There isn't one single scrap of originality to any of this, which in a film of its type isn't immediately a downfall for something like Alpha and Omega. But what totally derails it, is the lame ineptitude of the screenplay from Steve Denk and Chris Moore (who, between them, had also fumbled with The Reef and Open Season, respectively) the severely un-arresting animation from Crest, and the total lack of heart and soul. It struggles in its vain attempt to hit the appropriate cuteness factor by making the wolves look quite ridiculously human, and anything but wolf-like, so as not to frighten the little ones. Humphrey just has to have a trio of mates, and one of them just has to be a chubbster. I'm actually surprised that there wasn't a black rapper wolf in the pack's demographic. And there is a massive lack of importance to any of it, which seriously undermines the motivations of the characters and their unfolding dilemma. “Yay, we've made ourselves an animated film about wolves and plugged that species-gap in the formula!” you can imagine the two directors saying to one another with big fat grins on their faces. It is just a shame that they and the writers didn't have a clue what to do with their wolves once they'd managed to breed them in the captivity of their computers.
The dynamic back home, whilst the two mismatched lovers go walkabout, has no edge to it whatsoever. There is obviously tension brewing between the packs as no-one quite knows what has happened to the heroine and no-one trusts anybody, but there is no feeling of dread being fostered. It is, I suppose, refreshing to discover that Garth, for all of his honed and toned ultra-masculinity, is quite down-to-earth and clearly one of the good guys, as opposed to being a threat to the eventual contentment of the leads. His one failing – an inability to howl properly – is admittedly quite an amusing little twist, with birds dropping from the air whenever he lets rip, and his burgeoning relationship with Kate's best friend Lillie (Christine Ricci) is touching, even if we saw it coming from way over the horizon. But this slight deviation from the normal template actually only serves to eradicate any potential suspense. The only danger comes from the two old wolf leaders, and since they are clearly a bit too long in the tooth and really just want to be part of one big, happy family, we're nixed on that score as well. The whole story meanders with little actual substance to it, the plot failing to develop a scenario, the outcome of which is literally signposted right at the start. When the trip through the woods is also massively curtailed by the convenience of riding on a train for much of it, there is also little sense of the epic nature of Kate's and Humphrey's undertaking. And the addition of a sanctimonious goose called Marcel (voiced by Larry Miller) and his little sidekick, Paddy the duck (Eric Price), fails miserably in the effort to inject some colourful spontaneity into the proceedings. Pumbaa and Timon, they are not.
Personally, I struggled to get through this, and it took more than one attempt to make it all the way to the end. I can understand and sympathise with a live-action movie failing to gel to some degree, but an animated film with such a sure-fire premise, an in-built “cuddle-quota”, and the painstaking and meticulous care and attention that should go into every single frame in which nothing, literally, is left to chance, shouldn't be this lax and empty. The action scenes are hokey, with a level of acrobatics that defies even the super-stretched laws of physics that we can happily accept from an animated fantasy (if the lycanthropic flick, Wolf, raised eyebrows with its leaping wolf-men, then you'd best nail them to your head when you see what these wire-work athletes are capable of) and the smooching dance moves from cliff-top carousing wolves go way beyond dumbfounding and become hugely irritating. Just why do all these beasts dance in synch with one-another in this thinly veiled mating ritual? It looks like an incredibly poor pop video. And just what is the mass hopping shtick at the end supposed to be? The makers have said that they paid close attention to the bone structure of wolves and the motion of their bodies, as well as their behavioural traits … so what is this warped lurching skip all about then?
I really thought that I'd enjoy Alpha and Omega. I love animated films and I especially love anything even remotely lupine in theme or nature, as all those werewolf movie reviews can heartily attest to. But even when compared to such lesser CG fare as Out Of Season, The Wild, Barnyard, Surf's Up or Over The Hedge, Gluck and Bell's wilderness caper is the obvious runt of the litter, with a sub-par story, humdrum characters, a woeful lack of humour and a complete dearth of excitement. Even the animation, itself, is bland and devoid of either beauty or fascination. The film looks featureless and shorn of detail, which is permissible for some by-the-numbers Cbeebies fodder, but just plain unacceptable for a full-blown cinematic vehicle. Unleashed in cinemas in 3D, the 2D image seen here is very obviously full of moments that are supposed to be thrust out at you. Lots of branches and foliage filter glaringly towards and past us, characters glide, stampede, lope, charge, roll and fly in such a way that is clearly supposed to have them come free of the confines of the screen. I didn't find that any of this actually detracted from the film, however, so it is not like you will be constantly reminded that you are missing out on something. Trust me, even 3D couldn't put a shine on this wolf-dropping. Landscapes have no depth, the luxurious potential of forest and mountain backdrops squandered in favour of a bulky blandness that doesn't look at all intentionally stylised … it just looks lazy. And even if we don't expect Pixar-quality definition on the fur from Lionsgate's fledgling animation, I think I can safely say that it should still look better than this.
Of course, a grown-up not liking this is no biggie, is it? The real test of such material is whether or not the kids take to it. Well, I can only vouch for two youngsters – and both of mine (Luke, aged 9 … nearly 10), Lucy (aged 3 … very nearly 4!) were pretty much of the same opinion. They found it boring. Quite simply, the necessary magic that keeps a kid's attention for the duration of even the most oblique of whimsies was completely and utterly absent from this. They neither cared for the characters nor had any vested interest in how the story would pan out. For the sake of fairness, and a greater poll of opinion, I have even asked friends and co-workers with young kids who ventured forth to the flicks to see this on the big screen, and in 3D in some cases, and I couldn't find anyone who claimed that they, or their kids, had actually enjoyed it.
When we consider that around the same time, things like Megamind and Despicable Me were doing the rounds, and we had been privileged by How To Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3 only a few months before, Alpha and Omega comes as a huge disappointment. Even the curiously effective underlings of Disney's Tinkerbell trilogy have proven that there is still plenty of imagination and flair out there in the land of lesser ballyhooed animation … so the blame for Alpha's dry and underwhelming approach lies quite squarely at the feet of the film's duo of chirpy, fixed-grin directors. Never have I seen such a time-honoured formula (they clearly ticked-off all the required ingredients) fail on practically every single level.
Unlike a lot of people, I don't actually enjoy knocking a film. I always try to find something of worth in any production in the firm belief that nobody intentionally sets out to make a clunker. So I hate to be so negative towards a film that was probably made with the best intentions in mind, yet Alpha and Omega was a chore to sit through … and when it is only 87 minutes long, that is not a good sign. This would probably be fine to occupy some small kids on a rainy Saturday afternoon but, if we are going to be honest, there are considerably better animated movies around to fork out on that they would warm to with a lot more enthusiasm. The lead characters get hit with tranquilliser darts and, to be honest, I envied them. Alpha and Omega is very poor stuff indeed, so my advice is to skip this lazy, imagination-free rehash altogether.
A dismal effort all round.
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