You don’t have to be an avid dog lover to appreciate the atmospheric grandeur and rock solid yet comfortingly simple storytelling of Albert Hughes’s Alpha, but being an animal lover certainly gives you more stakes to invest in the story of humanity’s first friendship with canines, now evolved into one of the most beloved relationships in nature. Set in the shadowy primordial past, we see a rugged clan of plain dwellers hunting thundering herds of bison to survive the long winter. Young Keda (Kodi Smit McPhee) is the son of the Chief (Johannes Hauker Jóhannesson, who I’ve never heard of before but simply rocks his performance here) and an inexperienced hunter, plummeting halfway down a cliff following a standoff with several angry bison. Mourned and left for dead by his tribe, he awakens alone, injured and surrounded by danger on all sides. After narrowly escaping a hungry wolf pack and injuring one of them, he feels compassion for the animal and nurses it back to health, forming a bond with her that saves both their lives and carries him on a perilous journey back to his home. It’s so simplistic, and it’s done with earnest, tunnel vision sensibility, but so engaging is the story and so beautiful the visuals that it comes out a complete winner. His father gravely lays down thematic points in a mentor’s form, relating to him that life is rough, and survival is earned, not handed over easily. Hilarious when you look at the capable vitality of people back then and the overweight, disability pay human race of today, but I cheekily digress. It’s survival and friendship done to a T, and my favourite aspect of the film has to be atmosphere. Clearly some CGI was used as well as practical elements, but they’re blended reasonably. The gorgeous, otherworldly locations of Vancouver, Alberta and Iceland bring a sense of scope and vast, uninhabited nature to the surroundings, and the score by Joseph Debeasi and Michael Stearns is some seriously elemental, mood setting work that may be the strongest asset, especially when paired with images of the dazzling Milky Way and endless plains below. As much as they could they used a real pupper for Alpha’s scenes, a gorgeous Czechoslovakian wolfhound named Chuck who acts up a storm and wins hearts. This isn’t going to reinvent the wheel (or invent it at all, considering the time period it’s set in) and it’s certainly nothing incredibly new or unique, but if you want an invigorating, immersive time at the cinema, it works small wonders as a terrific summer movie.