You think penguins have it bad? At least they've adapted to survive in Antarctica. "Eight Below" tells the harrowing story of a dogsled team left chained outside a research station when the humans pull out in a hurry. The guide who used and loved them wants to return to rescue them but is voted down: Winter has set in and all flights are canceled until spring. Will the dogs survive? Or will the film end in the spring, with the guide uttering a prayer over their eight dead bodies?
Remarkable, how in a film where we know with an absolute certainty that all or most of the dogs must survive, "Eight Below" succeeds as an effective story. It works by focusing on the dogs. To be sure, the guide Jerry (Paul Walker) never stops thinking about them, but there's not much he can do. He visits Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), the scientist whose research financed the dogsled expedition, and he hangs out at his mobile home on a scenic Oregon coast, and he pursues a reawakening love affair with Katie (Moon Bloodgood), the pilot who ferried them to and from the station. To give him credit, he's depressed, really depressed, by the thought of those dogs chained up in the frigid night, but what can he do? Meanwhile, the subtitles keep count of how long the dogs have been on their own: 50 days ... 133 days ... 155 days ...
If there is a slight logical problem with their fight for survival, it's that they have plenty of daylight to work with. Isn't there almost eternal darkness during the Antarctic winter, just as there's almost eternal daylight during the summer? I suppose we have to accept the unlikely daylight because otherwise the most dramatic scenes would take place in darkness.
The dog sequences reminded me of Jack London's dog novels, especially White Fang and The Call of the Wild. Do not make the mistake of thinking London's books are for children. They can be read by kids in grade school, yes, but they were written by an adult with serious things to say about the nature of dogs and the reality of arctic existence. There's a reason they're in the Library of America.
In "Eight Below," as in Jack London, the dogs are not turned into cute cartoon pets but are respected for their basic animal natures. To be sure, the sled dogs here do some mighty advanced thinking, as when one dog seems to explain a fairly complex plan to the other dogs by telepathy. I was also impressed by the selfless behavior of the dogs as they bring birds to feed a member of the pack who has been crippled. I was under the impression that if a dog died in such circumstances, the others would eat it to avoid starvation, but apparently not (you can't assume the idea didn't occur to Frank Marshall, the director, since he made "Alive," the story of the Andes survivors).
Could the dogs (six huskies and two malamutes) really have survived unsheltered for five months, scavenging for themselves through an Antarctic winter? I learn from Variety that "Eight Below" is inspired by a Japanese film, itself based on real events, but in the 1958 "true story," seven of nine dogs died. Still, the film doesn't claim to be a documentary, and the story, believable or not, is strong and involving. It's the stuff about the humans that gets thin: The film lacks a human villain because the decision not to return for the dogs is wise and prudent, and not made by a mean man who hates dogs. You might think, however, that when Jerry appeals to Dr. McClaren, the scientist would exert himself a little more to save the dogs, since they saved his life. (How he gets into trouble and what the dogs do to save him I will leave for you to experience; it provides the film's most compelling moments.)
Movies about animals always live with the temptation to give the animals human characteristics. Lassie, for example, could do everything but dial the telephone and drive the car. The brilliance of "March of the Penguins" involved dropping a French soundtrack in which the penguins expressed themselves in voiceover dialogue and simply trusting in the reality of their situation. "Eight Below" is restrained, for the most part, in how it presents its dogs. When there are closeups of a dog's face, absorbed in thought, anxiety or yearning, we aren't asked to believe anything we don't already believe about dogs: They do think, worry and yearn, and they love, too. Or if they don't, I don't want to know about it.
The arrival of a geologist named Davis Mclaren (Bruce Greenwood) gets everything rolling. Mclaren knows that a meteor has landed on the snowy mountain, and to Jerry's chagrin, wants Jerry and his dogs to take him over rough terrain in order to find it. The two men and the dogs face treacherous obstacles along the way, the biggest of which is inclement weather. A heavy storm forces Jerry, Davis and the rest of the team at the base to fly out, leaving the eight dogs stranded behind to fend for themselves. With few means of getting back to his dogs, Jerry must put together a seemingly impossible rescue mission and hope that the dogs can hold out.
This flick is your standard Disney material. Resilient animals, inspirational true story, lots of nudity...well, not the last one but you get the idea. Disney's live action department has been working for years to create stand-up-and-cheer material, and their efforts have ranged from good (2004's Miracle) to real boring (2005's "Greatest Game Ever Played".) "8 Below" pretty much falls in the middle. While it's a story that really does deserve to be told, at the same time Disney doesn't tell it as well as they could. The problem is that the flick seems like two movies - one good one about the survival efforts of the dogs, and one bad one about everything the human characters do.
The dog movie is worthy of a standing ovation. The eight dogs in the film were actually played by sixteen, all of which showing more intelligence and acting talent than most actors in Hollywood. What's so amazing about these dogs is that they are very in-tune with the rest of the pack. They show a really touching loyalty to one another, but they also have a really well planned eye for strategy. One attack in which they must surprise a flock of pigeons in order to eat is so well executed that the Bush administration should consider giving them Cabinet positions. The bravery, unity, and heart shown by these dogs is just really incredible. I only wish the movie chose to stay with them instead of alternate with the human cast.
The people in this flick seem to exist for no reason at all. While the dogs freeze their tales off, the human?s debate whether or not to form a rescue mission, they say inspirational things, and of course feel sorry for the dogs. Only they don't seem to be doing anything of great importance that warrants this much screen time. Finally, by the last third they actually go on the rescue mission, but even then they encounter only minor obstacle that barely makes their story compelling. Paul Walker and Jason Biggs are primarily in this movie to attract a young crowd who expects Walker to jump into a firebird and go "Fast and the Furious" and Biggs to put his wee-wee in some "American Pie." They seem like marketing ploys rather than characters. This is a movie about the dogs and it should have stayed that way.
And Paul Walker anchoring a drama is a bad idea too. Walker is the kind of actor who can pull off the pretty boy action hero to perfection, as he showed in both "Furious" movies, but in drama he just seems wooden and out of place. The romantic chemistry between he and Bloodgood doesn't really seem to be there either. Biggs is here for comic relief and he exudes a certain goofiness that young kids will like but most others will probably find irritating. Bruce Greenwood, best known as the husband Ashley Judd gets a freebie murder on in "Double Jeopardy," probably gives the best performance here but it?s nothing to really go into in detail about.
"8 Below," like "March of the Penguins," is a fantastic flick about the will animals have to survive, but at the same time it's a mediocre one about humans who stand around and don't really need to be there. All in all, I'm recommending it because these dogs are just too hard to pass-up. This is an amazing story of survival and unity that the entire family can enjoy.
Disney has found the perfect film formula for Paul Walker. Keep him off the screen, or better still keep him quiet. Eight Below stars Paul Walker as a guilt-ridden mush-master but the real stars of the movie are the dogs, while Paul serves as in-between dog filler.
Guided by career second unit director Frank Marshall (he's been second banana on all three Indiana Jones movies, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Seabiscuit), Eight Below tells the story of eight Antarctic sled dogs who risk their lives to save an imperiled scientist, and are then abandoned at the bottom of the world. Their owner is a guide named Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker), and when his team is forced into an emergency evacuation from their Antarctica research base, he only agrees to leave his dogs chained outside as long as someone agrees to go right back and get them. Injured and facing serious frostbite, Gerry passes out in mid-airlift.
When he wakes up days have passed and no one has gone back to get his heroic animals. Now it's too late. Antarctic winter has set in and the storms are too fierce for travel. It'll be months before Gerry can find a way back to his old base camp, leaving his beautiful dogs to fend for themselves in the world's most inhospitable climate. No one expects them to live, in fact there's a pretty good chance they won't even get off their chain in front of the research base. But facing death by cold and starvation, the dog pack rips free of their chains and braves the Antarctic wilderness to make an attempt at survival.
Eight Below avoids a lot of the worst pitfalls you might expect from a Disney movie featuring animals. For instance, though they're all given cutesy names, the canines don't talk, nor are they given overly human traits. Instead, Marshall's movie takes an almost documentary-like approach to filming its animals. His movie has more in common with March of the Penguins than it does Milo & Otis. In fact, at times it's a lot like a modern retelling of Jack London's classic masterpieces 'Call of the Wild' or 'White Fang'. With a few exceptions, for the most part the dogs behave like dogs, making the movie a fascinating, beautiful exploration of pack animal behavior and desperate, instinctual survival. What a welcome relief from the usual pandering kiddietainment.
There are a few hiccups though as the film cuts between Gerry's struggle to get back to his furry family, and the dog pack's fight to live on in a completely inhospitable, subzero, barren wasteland. There's a terrible, almost silly scene with a computer animated leopard seal that looks a lot like a dinosaur, and then there's Paul Walker who still hasn't managed to find a way to display more than one or two emotions on screen. Neither of the two emotions in his repertoire fits with what his character is going through, and for Walker it's a struggle to find the heart of his character's story with such limited ability. But Paul's screen time is cut in half since he's sharing it with the dogs, and with what he has he should probably get some credit for really trying. At least he doesn't say 'Bro' in this one.
Eight Below is an eye-catching adventure with eight striking, energetic, furry stars. The dogs are absolutely beautiful, and outshine a lot of the little flaws (like Paul) plaguing their movie. Dave DiGilo's screenplay (adapted from a Japanese film) doesn't pull any punches, and capably balances the demands of realism and family-friendly entertainment. The movie's not afraid to hurt you, and its happy ending doesn't come without first facing sadness.