ALPHA – ENGAGING AND BEAUTIFUL PRE-HISTORIC “BOY AND HIS DOG” STORY

SHORT TAKE:

Family friendly (with provisos) pre-historic tale of an injured and lost teen who partners with a wolf for his perilous journey home.

WHO SHOULD GO:

With cautions, anyone.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS (but only for those who have seen no trailers)

A boy and his dog – a classic pairing that dates back all the way to the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf, and written into classics such as Kipling's Jungle Book and London's Call of The Wild. Movies have been made about this dynamic relationship from the family friendly Lassie franchise featuring such luminaries as Roddy McDowell to the R-rated cult favorite oddity starring Miami Vice’s Don Johnson, when he was himself a puppy, called A Boy and His (telepathic) DogAlpha is yet another installment in this litany of (how my friend Franklin describes all movies as) a love story with a twist. And I am a sucker for a well done dog movie.

The trailer for Alpha, as is unfortunately the case with most movies nowadays, gives away more than it should. So if you have seen any trailers there will be no additional spoilers. However, I did not find, having seen the trailer and the previews of scenes, take away from the suspense, or enjoyment of the movie.

The premise is about a teenage boy, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, the new Kurt Wagner/NightCrawler), the only child and son of Chief Tau (Johannes Johannesson, Lem Lemoncloak from Game of Thrones), is taken on his right of passage into manhood buffalo hunt. He is injured, separated from the tribe, and left, thought dead.

In a series of miraculous but plausible events he survives and begins his long and extremely perilous trek home, finding an unlikely partner in a wolf he calls Alpha,  portrayed by Chuck, a Czechoslavakian Wolfhound.

Set 20,000 years ago, in what would eventually be known as Europe, unlike other movies about prehistoric man, Alpha appropriately portrays these characters as perfectly recognizable, modern-looking humans, only without our tech. They are intelligent, with a close knit family structure, established spiritual philosophy and able to communicate complex thoughts with a detailed language. They're courageous problem solvers, in a defended village, who live in large dome-shaped thatched and mud reinforced wigwams – perfectly recognizable modern humans only without the modern conveniences.

I really like the dynamic portrayed between the wise and gentle, big and burly father as he attempts to train and teach his much gentler son to be the next chief of their tribe. It is a universal, even cliche, conflict and eventual resolution between the expectations of a loving father and the inherent predispositions and abilities of an anxious to please son, played out in what I thought was a new and interesting way.

And I thought especially well played out how the father's teachings provided the boy with invaluable assistance to confront the overwhelming challenges when on his own, how the boy used his father's wisdom, in combination with his own unique approach and instincts, to confront the harrowing trials he had to endure through his long, seemingly impossible journey home – how the unprepared boy, faced with almost certain death, embraces his father's lessons to meet these unplanned tests. Both the audience and he realize along the way, that if he survives his adventure, he will become the capable man and leader he otherwise would not have been.

A number of movies have been made about prehistoric man. The introductory music and landscape for Alpha reminded me of the first 15 minutes of Kubrick's 2001. And the premise of a long silent journey of hazard over primitive terrain without hope of outside rescue I found very reminiscent of Quest for Fire.

But this is where the similarities end.

The characters in Quest for Fire were brutish, and almost comically animalistic as they fell out of trees and laughed at injuries they inflicted on each other, taking food and sexual favors in behavior more akin to a tribe of gorillas than a tribe of humans.

Quest for Fire, though well made and interesting, was a very adult film full of graphic cruelty and casual sexuality, portraying humans as projections of the unproven and largely discreditable Darwinian fallacy of a descendance from apes, which nonetheless is still forced into our schooling system. It was refreshing that the makers of Alpha saw pre-historic homo sapiens as virtually identical to our current men, in all of the fundamental ways that unite us as humans.

Though Alpha does include some violence, most of it happens very quickly, and either in the dark or off screen. In addition, there are a few scenes with maggots and dead rotting animals. As a friend of mine noted, however, nothing you would not see on a hot summer day when you go to take out the trash in my hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Depending, of course, as always, on parental discretion and the temperament of your child, I would even venture to say this movie could be appropriate for the very young child, especially if they like dogs. I would not recommend it for a child who was upset unduly by jump- scares, or gross out images.

The cinematography is gorgeous, even occasionally breathtaking, in the panoramic vistas of undeveloped Canada, masquerading as prehistoric Europe.

So, go check out Alpha. Would make a wonderful first date movie for people who like dogs. And don't discount this even for the youngest members of your family, but do check it out first.

SGT. STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO – COMPLETELY FAMILY FRIENDLY ANIMATED HISTORICALLY ACCURATE DELIGHT ABOUT A FOUR LEGGED WORLD WAR I SOLDIER

SHORT TAKE:

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is a wonderful animated history of American Sgt. Stubby, a small mixed pitbull, the only dog to achieve rank and combat advancement, who followed his master’s Yankee Division regiment into the desperately dangerous front line trenches of World War I France.

WHO CAN GO:

With rare unequivocalness, I can recommend this movie for EVERYONE of any age.

LONG TAKE:

Years ago my brother, Bill, and I watched Lethal Weapon 2 on TV. There was a scene where Gibson as Martin Riggs, his dog Sam and Riggs' girlfriend du jour were under attack – helicopters, guns, lots of shooting. Bill turned to me and knowing what my primary concern would be said, "Don’t worry the dog survives." So rest assured to any parents concerned about bringing their small children to a movie about a cute dog on the front lines in World War I trenches, I have no compunction about a spoiler to let you know Sgt. Stubby is VERY child friendly.

Directed by Richard Lanni, in his first non-documentary feature film, and written by Lanni and Mike Stokey, the latter a combat vet and experienced film consultant on everything military, Sgt. Stubby is a mostly historically accurate telling of a stray miniature pit bull mix who attached himself to the 102nd Infantry Regiment Yankee Division, especially one Private Robert Conroy. Conroy is voiced by Logan Lerman, known for Fury, the Percy Jackson movies, 2011's steam-punk version of The Three Musketeers, and the most recent (and vastly underappreciated) Noah. (As a side note see Word on Fire’s Bishop Barron’s review of Noah before coming down too hard on Noah.)

In a delightful surprising supporting role, the amazing French actor, Gerard Depardieu brings Gaston Baptiste to life. Depardieu, with over 233 credits to his name is, to my mind, of note for the best Cyrano de Bergerac (short of the updated romantic comedy by Steve Martin, Roxanne), the funniest Porthos from 1998's Man in the Iron Mask, and the almost unique appearance of the character Reynaldo in Branagh’s unabridged Hamlet. Depardieu, leading man in both French and American movies, accomplished winemaker and restauranteur, has appeared mostly in historical dramas and romantic comedies. Baptiste, drawn to loosely look like Mr. Depardieu, is a large gentle giant of a veteran Frenchman who, in his civilian life, is a chef and takes Conroy, Stubby and Conroy’s closest human friends under his wing to help them survive in the trenches.

Stubby became the mascot of the Yankee Division, wandering onto the grounds of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut where the troops were training. Stubby ended up going with the men to the front lines in France for 18 months – in the trenches, raising morale, chasing out vermin, locating the injured, alerting the men to incoming bombs and impending gas clouds, and warning of approaching Germans. He was the most decorated dog in World War I and the only dog to ever achieve rank and then a combat promotion which he won for heroics during battle, including receiving a war wound.

Sgt Stubby is told through the medium of letters written home to Conroy’s sister Margaret, voiced by Helen Bonham Carter. Carter is best known for her scary roles including Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter franchise, the Red Queen in 2010's Alice in Wonderland, and Madam Thenardier from Les Mis. She is not quite as well known for some truly lovely and far gentler roles, such as the devoted wife of George VI in The King’s Speech. Her narration as Margaret in Sgt. Stubby ranks with her performance as Queen Elizabeth.

Sgt. Stubby reminded me of the old Disney and Warner Brothers animated shorts made during World War II promoting patriotism, explaining rationing, and cautioning against "loose lips". It was delightful to see that kind of straight forward common sense view of America and her allies against a common enemy AND with all the benefits of beautiful modern animation, all structured by the genuinely amazing events of this little dog.

From what I have read there were SOME historical liberties taken – for example Stubby does not manage to get onto the ship alone through sheer will and determination to find his master, but was smuggled onto the ship by Conroy. However, MOST of the other notable adventures really occurred – of which I hesitate to mention for fear of spoilers and ruining some surprises.

This is a VERY VERY child friendly movie. Even the battle injuries sustained by the soldiers are "shown" through mild reactions of other soldiers, or occur off screen or simply are just not shown but spoken of as one might during a stage play without actually showing any blood or wound. My two year old grandson, who ADORES dogs and is especially fond of our American Staffordshire mix, was not upset by any of the proceedings. During suspenseful moments he occasionally spoke a word of encouragement to Stubby but was otherwise transfixed. Two ten year old little girls who came with us and all the moms found the movie equally enjoyable. My ten year old "co-reviewers" both gave Stubby a definite "two thumbs up".

One of the other moms noted to me that, not only was Stubby a good and wholesomely entertaining movie, but it was genuinely educational. Maps of France, the trenches, the battle front lines, the advances and retreats were clearly drawn and animated, making it quite easy to follow the progress of the war. Details of uniforms and weaponry, the barbed wire, insignia on the bombs, movement of weaponry and conditions of the trenches seemed to be very carefully considered.

So I’d say – bring your dog obsessed two year old, bring grandma whose grandfather might have fought at Chemin des Dames, bring your older teen majoring in history at college, bring a girl on a first date, bring your friends to watch a feel good patriotic movie about the true exploits of brave American and French soldiers – both two and four footed, who fought selflessly to protect their countries and each other.