Based very loosely on a true story (not to mention the 1983 Japanese film Antarctica), the Disney adventure drama Eight Below harkens back (sort of) to the days of Disney's “True-Life Adventure” dramas--from the notorious, documentary-like White Wilderness (1958) to the Rex Allen-narrated eco-adventure Charlie the Lonesome Cougar (1967) to the fully anthropomorphized Incredible Journey (1963). Over the years, Disney has tried to replicate this old family-friendly formula with only intermittent success (1983's Never Cry Wolf, for example).
Eight Below is set in a tiny American basecamp deep in the middle of South Pole nowhere, stocked with regulation Quonset huts and several “colorful” Antarctic explorers (The Fast and the Furious' little wooden boy Paul Walker; American Pie's Jason Biggs, here reduced to Jerry Lewis duty; Laker Girl-turned-actress Moon Bloodgood, who stands around waiting to be penciled in as “female love interest”). With winter hot (cold?) on their heels and the explorers packing up to leave, the camp is visited by an American scientist (Bruce Greenwood--The Sweet Hereafter, Thirteen Days, Capote), who is desperate to find a rare meteorite he believes has crash-landed on a nearby mountaintop.
Against his better judgment, chief dog handler Jerry (Walker) lets himself get talked into taking the good doctor out on the meteor hunt. Naturally, a huge blizzard blows through, stranding Jerry and the doctor in prime frostbite territory. (It doesn't help that the doctor is a complete moron and keeps trying to get himself killed.) It is only through the strength and determination of Jerry's eight sled dogs that the duo makes it back alive.
Here, a good 40 minutes after opening credits, the film's main drama finally kicks in. Ordered to abandon the post immediately, the researchers are forced to leave the sled dogs behind. Even worse news is in store for Jerry when he finds out that the station's winter crew will not be arriving this year, thanks to the record-breaking storm front. Jerry does his best to organize some sort of rescue for his beloved dogs, but to no avail.
While dog-loving Jerry tries to get back to Antarctica, our heroic canines struggle to survive on their own in the harsh, frozen wilderness. Poor, cold doggies.
Super-producer Frank Marshall (Paper Moon, The Warriors, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Seabiscuit, The Bourne Identity and plenty more) tries his hand at directing with this one, showing off some rather inconsistent skills. (His last directing gig was 1995's Congo, which might give some indication of quality here.) Fully half of Eight Below is concerned with Jerry and his crippling guilt over abandoning the dogs. This seems like a poor decision, as the dogs have a much more interesting tale to tell and are far more emotive than Mr. Walker. Sad Paul is largely the same as Happy Paul, who is virtually indistinguishable from Angry Paul. (It must be noted that Horny Paul--although he does not appear in this film--bears many of the same characteristics as well.)
The other Paul-free half of the film, however, is gripping and emotional. Though the script never gives them the ability to speak (thank god), these eight canine actors do an amazing job of “selling” their do-or-die situation. From finding food to fighting off predators, their fight for survival is one tense, tear-filled roller coaster.
Perhaps unwisely, Disney has been marketing this as a family film. Based on the number of small children surrounding me in the theater who were bawling their eyes out and begging to be let out of the theater, I can safely surmise that Eight Below is far too intense for young children. Those furry doggies sure are cute, but their travails are way too traumatic for the single-digit set.
When you add up its sluggish pace, its stiff (human) acting and its wildly inconsistent tone, Eight Below falls a few notches below a Certified Disney Classic. Still, it's a stirring enough adventure to milk the tear ducts and pump the heart valves of animal lovers, and it's a hell of a lot better than Snow Dogs.
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