Eight Below (2006) / Adventure-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for brief language
Running Time: 120 min.

Cast: Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood, Moon Bloodgood, Jason Biggs
Director: Frank Marshall

Screenplay: Dave DiGilio (loosely based on the 1983 Japanese film, Antarctica)
Review published February 22, 2006

I must admit, a heartwarming Disney film starring Paul Walker and a bunch of dogs isn't the kind of thing that typically ranks high on my list of movies to see, so it comes with great surprise for me to state that I actually enjoyed Eight Below considerably.  Despite its tendency to occasionally be cutesy and manipulative, which is basically a given in live-action family films, it still works, and works quite well, as a fun-for-all-ages adventure.  Director Frank Marshall is certainly no stranger when it comes to these sorts of films, with the thrills of Arachnophobia and the survival adventure Alive. So, yeah, he did also make Congo, but two out of three isn't bad, right?

Like many movies about personal triumph, it is "inspired by" a true story, which in most cases means 95% fictionalized.  Given the fact that it is essentially a semi-remake of the Japanese film Antarctica (or Nankyoku monogatari), which was set in the late 1950s, you can see just how far astray the writers of this one have traveled to concoct their story.  Essentially, it is the story of how eight sled dogs struggle for survival after being left behind during one of the worst snowstorms to hit that area.  Paul Walker (Running Scared, Into the Blue) plays Gerry Shepherd, the dog guide there, journeying during the thin ice days of summer in order to transport a scientist (Greenwood, Capote) looking for a fallen meteorite.  The mission proves a success (sort of), but evacuation is paramount.  They don't have room for the dogs and are forced to leave them chained temporarily.  However, returning becomes impossible, leaving the dogs to fend for themselves during the cold, desolate climate, as Gerry explores any avenue he can to return to the friends he's left behind.

Live-action Disney is usually a spotty affair, but Eight Below ranks as one of their better ones.  It doesn't really pander to the children in the audience, letting the adults be adults when they can.  Jason Biggs provides the obligatory comic relief to ease the tension of Walker's guilt and resolve, and there is even a romance brewing underneath the surface of the adventure.  With adventure, action, intrigue, and drama in the mix, Eight Below has a little something for just about everyone that isn't completely jaded against standard commercial feel-good major studio releases.

The Antarctic scenery, shot mostly in Arctic regions in Canada and Greenland, is quite beautiful, and the direction by Marshall keeps the action brisk.  Clocking in at just a smidgeon over two hours, it doesn't feel long at all, with good use of character development, not only for the human characters, but also for the dogs, who all have varying personalities that make them easy to distinguish once you get to know them.  The actors perform well, with an especially solid performance by Paul Walker, who shows that he can actually be good in a role if he chooses ones that complement his average-joe personality.

If there were one aspect of the film overall that could have been handled better, it would have been in the scenes where the dogs take center stage.  Certainly, it is difficult to convey a story with non-human actors with no dialogue, but Marshall makes the decision to give the dogs almost human-like qualities in their actions, to the detriment of the story's believability.  They bark at each other, as if they have acutely nuanced conversations, and the militaristic strategizing in order to secure food and shelter becomes a bit too hard to swallow at times.  However, by the time these things occur, we have already invested so much into the story and characters, the drama of it allows us to forgive such contrived storytelling.  We like these dogs.

Eight Below may not win over the stubborn or hard-hearted, but for families, and those that enjoy well-made tales of adventure and survival, this is a solid and entertaining release for all ages.  It's nothing revolutionary, but for a fun film for the entire family to enjoy, it's one of the better releases this year.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo