How far animation B-pictures have come in just a few short years. Compare Alpha and Omega, a new 3-D 'toon 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.
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.
The film is 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.
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 dad (Danny Glover) and mom (Vicki Lewis). She only questions that obligation when she realizes her intended, Garth (Chris Carmack), has no howl. 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.
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 Lewis, as Kate's sweet-voiced but ferociously protective mom, lands consistent laughs. 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.
Voices: Justin Long, Hayden Panettiere, Christina Ricci, Danny Glover, Vicki Lewis, Dennis Hopper.
Directors: Anthony Bell, Ben Gluck.
Screenwriters: ChrisDenk, Steve Moore.
Producers: Ken Katsumoto, Steve Moore, Richard Rich.
A Lionsgate release. Running time: 88 minutes. Rude humor, some mild action. Playing at area theaters.
Kate (voiced by Hayden Panettiere) and Humphrey (voiced by Justin Long) in Alpha and Omega. (Lionsgate and Crest Animation)