Sweet 'Alpha and Omega' a Howling Good Time
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
An Alpha female named Kate (Hayden Panettiere) and Humphrey (Justin Long), an Omega male from the same wolf pack, are secretly drawn to each other in "Alpha and Omega," the funny, sweet but occasionally befuddling new animated family film from Lionsgate. Since Alphas are only supposed to mate with other Alphas (indeed, Kate is already "engaged" to an Alpha named Garth) their romantic dilemma is very "Romeo and Juliet." Do they break the laws of nature in order to be together?
Relying on a plot that hinges on adherence to the laws of nature is a double-edge sword when you're breaking them wildly everywhere else. The animated wolves of "Alpha and Omega," residents of Canada's Jasper National Park, have hairdos and put flowers behind their ears -- if they're girls; and flex their muscles and tell bad jokes -- if they're boys. When the virginal Kate reluctantly submits to a marriage arranged for her by her father Winston (Danny Glover) with Garth (voiced by Chris Carmack), who hales from a competing pack of Eastern wolves, the two are introduced in front of their brethren. It's a tense moment for the wolves; Caribou and other prey is in short supply in Jasper, and the implication is, if they can't work together, the Eastern wolves, led by Garth's father Tony (Dennis Hopper, in his next to last role) will find supper amidst Kate's pack. The marriage is symbolically vital.
Parents may also find it a tense moment. Will there be rear end sniffing? Mounting you'll have to explain to your offspring? As it turns out, Kate and her strapping suitor merely touch noses and then retire to a craggy ridge to howl at the moon together. It's all very chaste, which makes sense because none of the animated male animals have externally visible genitalia. You wonder if directors Anthony Bell and Ben Gluck even discussed this -- "Should we give Garth testicles? Just a bit of a penis? -- or whether physical accuracy of this nature is completely off the table in animation. Presumably there is a fear of offending or distracting small viewers. On a side note from the realm of reality, children see genitalia on dogs just about every day of their lives. They appear to survive the trauma just fine.
Back to Garth: He's a lousy howler and Kate is turned off and slinks away on her own. She runs into puppyish, smart Humphrey, and they are sparring/flirting in the moonlight when both are shot with dart guns by rangers and whisked off to Idaho as part of a repopulation project. Attractive opposites, forced to travel together; it's just like "It Happened One Night." In Idaho they encounter a pair of golf-playing water fowl, a (French) Canadian Goose named Marcel (Larry Miller) and a British Duck named Paddy (Eric Price). Marcel and Paddy provide not just welcome comic relief, but instructions on how to get back to Jasper, complete with aerial guidance.
The sexual stereotyping is typical: Humphrey is, like his human actor, warm and cuddly and a bit of a dork, Kate is uptight and self-sacrificing, but nonetheless, these wolves are pleasant company. Kate's steel magnolia-style mom Eve nicely voiced by Vicki Lewis. The movie is pleasant, although really -- don't pay to see it in 3-D, it's nothing special. Like the "Ice Age" movies, it is all perfectly average, nicely animated, appealingly located entertainment -- including the requisite waterfall shots that every nature related kid movie has -- with the bonus of a smallish but worthy environmental message about the plight of wolves being pushed to the fringes by human development.
But there is something off about the premise, namely the whole Alphas must mate only with Alphas business. My kid was baffled by it, and nudged me a few times during the movie to voice his confusion over why Kate and Humphrey couldn't be together. I couldn't help. I wondered whether I'd daydreamed through the section of Biology that explained what the deal is with Alphas and Omegas. My assumption, had I given much thought to it, would have been that an Alpha, by definition of being the leader of the pack, would get to have their way with anyone they please. Upon later consultation with various wolf related websites, of which there are many, I can tell you that apparently, Alphas have been known to find love, or at the least, gratification of biological impulses, in the lower ranks of wolfdom. About 20 percent of wolf pups are born out of non Alpha-Alpha "marriages." So the obstacle faced by Kate and Humphrey in"Alpha and Omega" is overstated. But then again, I'm fairly confident that Lion Kings and their offspring don't really live out Hamlet scenarios.
Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/Harper Collins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.