Two young Canadian wolves representing the extremes of the social scale join forces in the animated “Alpha and Omega,” which keeps them stuck in the bland middle. Though the visuals are in 3D, the film barely manages to register in one. “Alpha and Omega” gives us an episodic story with an uneasy mix of slapstick and peril that drains the momentum, along with lackluster art direction that saps the visual interest.
Kate (the voice of Hayden Panettiere) was born to be an alpha wolf, daughter of the pack leader and trained to hunt caribou. Humphrey (Justin Long) is the happy-go-lucky omega.
Caribou are getting scarce, and the uneasy truce between the wolves led by Tony (Dennis Hopper, in his penultimate role) and the wolves led by Kate’s father, Winston (Danny Glover), is fraying. There’s also some nattering about eastern vs. western wolves that makes them sound like rival college football teams or gangsta rappers.
Tony proposes that the packs join forces, with a marriage between Kate and his jock-like son to bring the two groups together. But American forest rangers capture Kate and Humphrey and carry them off to Idaho, hoping they will repopulate the area.
With some guidance from a golf-playing goose (even the wildly funny Larry Miller can’t give that character any vitality) Kate and Humphrey (an “African Queen” reference?) start for home. Their adventures on the way back include being shot at by a man who thinks Humphrey has rabies and being chased by bears who mistake Humphrey’s playful snowball for an attack on their cub.
Tony threatens war unless Kate shows up in time to marry his son and unite the packs. But Kate is not the only one to discover that alphas and omegas can make a good team.
Kate is an appealing heroine, and so it’s a relief to see an all-ages movie that does not require the responsible, capable character to “loosen up” and get in touch with her silly side or the fun-loving character to become serious to find love and happiness. But the script fails to give Kate and Humphrey some other purpose to propel the story forward. Despite a perilous road trip and an imminent feud between wolf factions, we do not see Kate and Humphrey learn or change in any way that seems to matter. The result is a story with all of the dramatic tension of a dial tone.
The movie depends on the difference between the two kinds of wolves, but it is oddly reluctant to decide what that means. The alphas act like, well, alphas: strong, brave, smart and kind of bossy. They are not unkind to the omegas but they are dismissive and condescending. There’s a half-hearted attempt to make the contribution of the omegas appear equivalent because they remind everyone to have fun and “keep the peace.” It seems forced and insincere, especially when the genuine contributions made by Humphrey come from being brave and smart, not funny and playful.
The background animation has some lovely touches but the character design is poor. It’s not accurate enough to make the wolves seem like animals and not expressive enough to make them seem like characters we can care about. The characters’ expressions during vertiginous drops on a hollow log sledding down a mountain are so flat that the 3-D effects just don’t matter.
We’ve been spoiled this year by two top-quality 3-D animated films, “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Despicable Me,” and one that qualifies as a masterpiece, “Toy Story 3.” Those films are the alphas that make this one seem like a Saturday morning cartoon show.