Eight Below

Inspired by a true story, this not-so-saccharine Disney film follows eight lovable sled dogs amid spectacular scenery.

By:Elise Nakhnikian
   Reunited after a long, cruel separation, they run toward one another, the camera cutting from one to the other as they draw nearer. Sure, it’s a numbingly formulaic cliché, but how many times have you seen it played out between a man and his sled dogs?
   That combination of the familiar and the fresh keeps Eight Below, another reliably entertaining family film from Disney, as comfortably satisfying as a mac and cheese dinner.
   "Inspired by a true story," as the opening credits put it, Eight Below is adapted from Nankyoku Monogatari (Antarctica), a Japanese film that remained that country’s highest-grossing movie for 15 years after its 1983 release. Antarctica hewed closely to the facts of a 1957 expedition in the Antarctic, in which a team of Japanese scientists traveled far from their base camp in search of a rare meteorite. On the way back, they got lost in a blinding snowstorm and were rescued by two of their 15 sled dogs, who ran back to the camp to get help. But when they went home to Japan for the winter, they had to leave the dogs behind, unable to return until the harsh weather abated. Six months later, two members of the team went back. Expecting to collect the dogs’ frozen bodies, they were delighted to find that two had survived.
   Masaru Kakutani, one of the producers of Antarctica, told the Los Angeles Times: "It will be interesting to see what Hollywood does. Ours was more factual than dramatic. I’m expecting Mr. Frank Marshall to make a heartwarming picture — with a better survival rate for the dogs."
   Good guess.
   Eight Below makes life at a National Science Foundation base camp look like summer camp without the summer. The two overgrown boys based there — hunky guide Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) and cartographer-slash-comic relief Cooper (American Pie’s Jason Biggs) — seem to spend all their time either horsing around or communing with Gerry’s "kids," eight lovable sled dogs. Even the wildlife is adorable, judging by a March of the Penguins moment where a group of penguins hop out of and back into the water, one laggard dithering nervously before joining the rest.
   But the idyll ends when the meteor-seeking geologist (Bruce Greenwood) arrives, flown in by Gerry’s once and future girlfriend, all-American bush pilot Katie (the babelicious Moon Bloodgood, identified by IMDb as "#99 in Maxim Magazine’s Hot 100 of 2005 list"). Greenwood, who played Truman Capote’s quietly supportive boyfriend in Capote, is the heavy here, a rock-obsessed "doc" who forces Gerry and his dogs to risk their lives when his carelessness puts him in danger. Worse yet, he doesn’t seem to mind when the team is forced to abandon the heroic creatures who saved him to the howling Antarctic winter.
   In classic Disney style, Eight Below is shaped more by the sensibilities of the studio than by any individual filmmaker. Director Marshall has a long list of credits as a producer, but his directing career spans just a handful of undistinguished movies, including Arachnophobia and Alive, a story about cannibalism among the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes. And first-time screenwriter David DiGilio — a Princeton University graduate — is on Disney’s payroll as part of its in-house writing program and was given the job as an assignment.
   DiGilio’s inspiration, he told the Los Angeles Times, was "National Geographic filmmaking, influenced by ‘Never Cry Wolf’ and ‘The Bear.’" Maybe that’s why Eight Below is less saccharine than you might expect. Like the Japanese original, it spends much of its running time cutting back and forth between the dogs’ struggle to survive and Gerry’s guilt over having left them. The parts involving Gerry fall pretty flat — partly because Walker, whose other main credit to date is the starring role in The Fast and the Furious, pitches nearly every scene to the same note of tortured intensity, but also because the reunion between Gerry and his teammates is foreshadowed too heavily and played out too cutely. But the time we spend with the dogs is always engrossing.
   When they’re first introduced, the six huskies and two Malamutes who make up the team are each given one defining trait: Maya is the wise and dignified leader, Max is the young Turk with potential, Jack is the old hand on the verge of retirement, etc. But the dogs soon break free of that typecasting, exhibiting an impressive range of abilities and emotions. Everything that happens to them is a matter of conjecture, of course, yet watching them learn to hunt as a pack, mourn the death of a teammate, or pay their respects to Maya feels completely plausible and surprisingly moving. As the scene unfolds, after letters on the screen have typed out a date followed by the number of days they have been on their own, you may find yourself forgetting that it’s a dramatization, lost in admiration for these alert and loyal creatures.
   The visuals for the Antarctica scenes, most of which were shot in northern British Columbia, are spectacular too, so much so that even the dogs seem to appreciate their beauty. Watching the Aurora Borealis? Amazing. Watching an exhilarated dog run in circles, snapping at the colors reflected on the ground, as he watches the light show? Priceless.
   Good dogs!
Rated PG. Contains some peril and brief mild language.