1993's "Alive," directed by Frank Marshall, told the harrowing true story of a group of plane crash survivors stranded in the bitterly cold, snowy terrain of the Andes Mountains, and their struggle to brave the elements until they were saved. Take away the plane crash, change the setting from South America to Antarctica, and swap humans for canines and "Eight Below" is a virtual remake of that film. That the director happens to be Frank Marshall, and that the final poignant shot of each is of a memorial cross standing proudly for the victims whose lives were claimed, doesn't seem to be coincidental. Marshall may be repeating himself, albeit under the guise of a PG-rated family film this time, but there is no denying his expertise in setting up gripping life-or-death situations within nature's most perilous corners.
The core drama of "Eight Below"eight sled dogs' fight for survival after they are left stranded for close to six months during one of the worst winters in Antarctica's historyis bold and arresting, but it takes far too long for this central plot to take shape. A scientific expedition northward through Antarctica nearly claims the lives of geologist Dr. McLaren (Bruce Greenwood) and his guide, Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker), when they don't make it back to their base camp before a big snowstorm hits. They narrowly escape, thanks to Gerry's eight beloved sled dogs, and have soon been whisked away to a hospital with the assurance that Gerry will be able to return and pick up his dogs once he has recuperated. With the weather rapidly deteriorating, however, the winter expedition team is abruptly canceled and no aircraft is permitted to fly back to the area until the summer. As Gerry tries to find a way to save his dogs, his hope dwindling with every day, the determined pack set out to overcome their bleak odds through the winter season.
Despite being inspired by a true story, Walt Disney Pictures' "Eight Below" mines territory that has been covered too many times to count; the studio alone has previously released the likes of 1991's "White Fang," 1994's "Iron Will," and 2002's "Snow Dogs
." With that being said, "Eight Below" is a respectable addition to this rosterit's certainly a step up from the woeful "Snow Dogs
"and garners some extra points for not Disney-fying the story to the point of annoyance. The world director Frank Marshall and screenwriter David DiGilio's have created is one based in reality, with the weather and nature harbingers of potent danger for the eight put-upon dogs. There isn't a talking animal to be found, either, which is certainly a plus.
The struggles of the dogs, named Maya, Max, Old Jack, Shorty, Shadow, Dewey, Truman and Buck, are captured extremely well on film, and it doesn't hurt that they are either terrific animal performers or have at least been edited to appear so. Their trials and tribulations are alternately frightening, poignant, and tension-filled, particularly in two key sequences: one in which seven of them say good-bye to their comrade when he is mortally wounded, and the other concerning the attack of a leopard seal. It demands to be mentioned that this latter set-piece features what is one of the biggest and most successfully articulated jump scares in memory from a movie outside of the horror genre.
If "Eight Below" had remained with the dogs and been told entirely from their point of view, the film could have been a classic cinematic tale of will and survival, as the promotional materials are shamelessly boasting. Unfortunately, interest flags and the pacing slows every time the threadbare humans and their even more threadbare interpersonal relationships take center stage. For one, none of them have been developed as more than walking cliches, and two, their acting doesn't come close to approaching that of the dogs.
Paul Walker (2005's "Into the Blue
"), so often accused of being a wooden pretty boy, is actually not too bad as Gerry Shepherd. His love for his eight pets is strongly felt throughout, and Walker handles his character's warring emotions well. As a person, though, he's a bore. A love interest is required in every movie, and in this one that job is put on the shoulders of Moon Bloodgood (2005's "A Lot Like Love
"), bland as Katie. Early contender for the most irritating performance of the year goes to Jason Biggs (2003's "American Wedding
"), whose Charlie Cooper feels less like a skilled expert of the earth's land and exceedingly like a mentally challenged young man who has been granted a trip to Antarctica courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Biggs mugs for the camera to such a degree, earning no laughs in the process, that his every appearance inspires a collective audience groan.
"Eight Below" is a motion picture problematic in its design and at least twenty minutes too long, but it is saved by being tougher than most family films and with a fair minimum of sugarcoating. Furthermore, when it's good, it's very good, and the cinematography by Ron Burgess (2004's "The Polar Express
") is breathtaking, with British Columbia convincingly standing in as the ice and snow-blanketed wastelands of Antarctica. When you get right down to it, it is the dogs who are the star attractions, and when they are on screen their plight is never less than riveting. These are eight protagonists who may not stand on two legs, but are depicted as every bit as humane as their human counterparts. Actually, maybe more.