How is it possible to find a family movie about cute animals depressing? I don't mean movies like 'Old Yeller' or 'Marley and Me,' either. (The spoiler alert has worn off of that one by now, yeah?) No, I mean run-of-the-mill animated films with anthropomorphized beasts touching noses, singing and dancing, crazy sidekicks, daring action moves and a guaranteed happy ending. 'Alpha and Omega' has all of these things, and in 3-D to boot, but the final effect was flat and dull. And that's exactly how I felt when I left the theater afterward, dizzy and nauseous, having sat stock still for the duration of the movie barely cracking a smile.
'Alpha and Omega,' for starters, is not a catchy title, but that is the least of its problems. The voice acting by Hayden Panettiere, Christina Ricci, Justin Long, Danny Glover and Dennis Hopper (in his last role, for the love of mud), is phoned in, but you can't totally blame the actors as the lines they're given are immediately forgettable. Kate the alpha wolf (Panettiere) has sass and guts and does all sorts of neat tricks that involve doing flips mid-air, but she's as boring as hell. There's no discernible reason why Humphrey (Long) would be interested in howling at the moon with her at all, but you can't blame Kate for not wanting him around, as his constant jokes and pratfalls are just plain lame. Humphrey, see, is an omega; omega wolves are second to the alpha wolves, and so their jobs are to, uh, I don't know. Humphrey and his friends spend a lot of time drooling over the girl wolves and using hollowed-out tree trunks to luge through the forest.
The incredibly limp plot is as follows: alpha and omega wolves can't get together because those are the rules. Kate's dad Winston (Glover) used to be best friends with this other wolf Tony (Hopper) but then Winston wanted to split their tribe into two tribes, and now Winston and Tony have beef. To avoid a full-on wolf war, Tony wants Kate to marry his son Garth (Chris Carmack). However, when Kate and Garth meet at the monthly Howling at the Moon gathering, Kate finds that his howl is so bad it makes birds literally drop out of the sky. (I guess that's the wolf equivalent of dandruff or picking your nose on a date or something.)
When Kate runs off to gather herself, Humphrey sees this as his chance to have a heart-to-heart, but before they can talk, they're snatched up by park rangers who take them to Idaho so Kate and Humphrey can repopulate the park there. Kate is determined to get home in time to help the tribe. Humphrey, however, is a little sad because that means he can't repopulate the park with her. Their new friends at the park are a duck and a French-Canadian goose that play golf and help them try to get home. Back at home, Kate's little sister, an omega named Lily (Ricci), is getting close with Garth. What is this crazy world coming to?! It bears mentioning that the monthly Howling at the Moon turns into a sort of song and dance routine that will make you long for "Hakuna Matata" and "Circle of Life." Or even Randy Newman.
If you don't know by now that Kate and Humphrey make it back in time to stop the tribes from going to war, that they hook up and Garth and Lily hook up and everyone's like, "Well, that was a silly rule!" and then everyone howls at the moon together at the end, I don't know what to tell you.
Now that we've gone over the exhaustingly rote plot and the dialogue that attempts to be cheeky enough to appeal to kids ("So why is this called rabbit poo mountain?"), let's talk about the animation. I've seen better facial animation on games that were made for PCs in the '90s. (Nerd insult!) If we can make a baby look like it's legitimately trying to convince us to buy and sell stocks using E*Trade, there is no reason why the faces of cartoon wolves can't match up better with their dialogue. The texture of the fur is wonky, and their hairstyles look more like chunky suggestions of hair than something fully animated. The overall effect is distracting and looks cheap. The first few minutes of the movie are entirely made up of action sequences just to show off the 3-D effects; this happens countless times during the movie, and instead of adding to the experience, only serves to make it all too much for the brain to process at once.
It's not fair to compare every animated film to Pixar or DreamWorks, but there is a reason that we do. It's because they've consistently outdone themselves with each new release when it comes to balancing intelligence, warmth and humor in their stories and dazzling animation, whether 3-D or not. The movies are fresh and innovative but also timeless; the animation might not look as sharp as it did when they first came out, but the movies were made with enough care and diligence that they hold up. Movies like 'Alpha and Omega' keep cartoons in the doghouse.