The archetypal story of a boy and his dog gets rewound several millennia in “Alpha,” a narratively pure, family-targeted adventure from onetime urban grit auteur Albert Hughes. The stylishly crafted film mostly succeeds in its engaging (and tagline-ready) ambition to chronicle “how mankind discovered man’s best friend,” even if its naturalistic strengths are swapped out for an exaggeratedly epic tone in the later going.
Set in the craggy European wild of 20,000 years past, the movie casts Aussie actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In”) as Keda, a slight, sensitive tribal youth altogether unlike his rugged chieftain father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The two set out with the other men of their clan on a crucial bison hunt, both of them hopeful that the quest will help Keda to prove himself. The drama makes room for healthy doses of fatherly wisdom, contrary to any suppositions that cerebral sentiment and mangy pelt-wear might be mutually exclusive. But overall, the ancient, subtitled dialogue has a deft minimalist quality, and Smit-McPhee plays it with quiet expressiveness. (He’s much more effective here than he’s recently been amid the mutant mayhem of “X-Men.”)
The action actually feels a bit different from what’s been advertised until a gasp-eliciting development on the hunt ends with Keda left as vulture food. Battered, alone, and a terrifyingly long way from the relative safety of home, he’s an easy target for marauding wolves — or would be, if not for a meager blade, some scalable deadwood, and gumption. Enter, finally, pack leader Alpha, who’s gashed by Keda in the attack. Characteristically, the boy doesn’t have the heart to finish the animal, and a tentative bond is formed — albeit not without a dicey amount of slow-to-trust snarling, which the movie delivers with an easy comedic flair. The relationship’s seminal trappings are also entertainingly handled: first fetched stick, first chewed-up clothing accessory, etc.
Other flourishes applied to the pair’s odyssey homeward lack the same narrative unobtrusiveness. As the obstacles escalate, particularly in a harrowing thin-ice sequence, “Alpha” strays from a visually dynamic portrait of resourcefulness and PETA-perturbing survival toward CG-heightened improbability. It’s been over a couple of decades since Hughes and his twin brother, Allen, directed “Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents,” and it’s an intriguing surprise to see where he’s chosen to go with his first solo feature outing. Still, he might have been even better served if his instinct to keep his storytelling grounded was as unwavering here as it was back then.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Albert Hughes. Written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt, from a story by Hughes. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson. At Boston theaters and suburbs. 96 min. PG-13 (some intense peril).