If ever there was an argument to be made that the Oscars should seriously consider a category for animal stars, Eight Below is it. I'm sure that last sentence sounds silly, but you'll understand when you see the expressive and almost emotional performances that director Frank Marshall (Archnophobia, Alive) got out of his canine stars. They are actually the sole reason to see this film, as their human co-stars actually come across as more wooden and hollow. When the film is focusing on the dogs' plight for survival, it is a stirring and emotional adventure tale in the tradition of some of the best nature films. Much like last year's surprise hit, March of the Penguins, Eight Below proves that animals can carry a film without the aid of highly paid comic stars doing "funny" voice overs off camera.
Set in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, the film centers on experienced guide, Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker), and his team of eight sled dogs who seem to share an almost brotherly bond. Gerry's latest assignment is to guide a geologist named Dr. McLaren (Bruce Greenwood) to a site where a piece of a rare meteor is supposed to be located. The journey quickly becomes treacherous when the doctor is injured during the journey back to camp, and one of the fiercest snowstorms in Antarctica's recorded history is starting to hit. The team makes it back in time, but both the doctor and Gerry (who is suffering from severe frostbite) need to be transported to a hospital immediately. The helicopter is not big enough to carry all of them and the dogs as well, so the animals must be left behind with the promise that a rescue team will come for them shortly thereafter. The storm quickly intensifies, however, and it becomes impossible for any team to make it to the region until the summer. With his hope for the dogs' survival decreasing each day, Gerry becomes determined to find a way to make it back to the camp and bring the animals home, while the dogs themselves find that they must brave the elements and dangerous animals of nature if they want to survive the long winter season on their own.
I have no idea how faithful Eight Below is to real events (the film's title claims that it's "inspired by a true story"), but the film's depiction of how the dogs survive on their own is exciting, suspenseful, and downright fascinating. Despite the fact that this is a family film and a Walt Disney Studio production, the film pulls very few punches in its depiction of the trials and hardships that the dogs must endure. It is refreshingly honest, treating the dogs as real animals, not as wisecracking humans in disguise. The dangers they face are real and, sensitive young children and adult dog lovers be warned, not all of the canines live to see the end credits. The filmmakers' decision to treat the story seriously is a rewarding one, as it helps make this seemingly hopeless situation all the more real and heartfelt. A subtitle that appears from time to time that keeps track of the number of days the dogs have been on their own also adds to the tension. But, it is the dogs themselves that ultimately make these scenes work. Though they come up with some clever ideas to survive their situation, they never become so clever that you don't believe an actual animal could think of such a plan. Unlike some other animal movies, they don't develop crude yet complex devices, or teach themselves how to skateboard for the entertainment of the audience watching. Each of the eight four-legged stars also have their own unique, yet believable, personality which helps differentiate them. I don't know if all of this is due to some very talented animal trainers or some very clever editing, and quite frankly I don't care. I want to believe these dogs did all this stuff on their own, because these sequences are just that believable.
It is when the movie switches over to the human side of the story that Eight Below begins to drag a little. Paul Walker will never be mistaken for a master thespian, and has often been accused of simply being a pretty face with little acting talent. While he's not exactly awful in this, I do think his character lacked personality. While he interacts with the dogs well enough, he unfortunately spends most of his scenes with his human co-stars, and whenever he does, he comes across as a bit more wooden and unnatural than he should. Maybe this was somewhat intentional, as the film seems to hint that his character is more comfortable around the dogs than with other people. Still, Walker just does not have the charisma and personality to carry a film. His fellow human stars don't hold up much better, as they either don't get enough screen time for us to get to know them, or they just don't do enough to capture our attention. The only other two actors besides Walker who caught my attention is Moon Bloodgood as his love interest, who is pretty yet somewhat bland in her underwritten role, and Jason Biggs from the American Pie films as the movie's needless and hopelessly unfunny comic relief. Not only does he grind the film to a halt whenever he's on screen, he does not fit into the mostly dramatic tone the rest of the film carries. It's like he walked in from some kind of straight to video teen comedy, and made me want to see him freezing his buns off in the arctic instead of the dogs.
On a technical level, the film is a success with stunning landscape shots and some tightly edited action sequences, such as when the dogs must face off against a giant leopard seal in order to get some food. Even though the movie was not actually shot on location in the arctic (it was filmed in British Columbia), I was certainly fooled, and did not find this out until I looked up information on the Internet about the movie. The only real fault I can think of, besides the slightly less than charismatic human cast, is that the film does seem to run a little long with an almost 2 hour running time. It never drags too much, but there still seems to be a bit too much filler material, most of it concerning the material that does not concern the dogs. I think if this had just been a straight nature film like March of the Penguins, Eight Below would be one of the most remarkable films of the year.
Despite its share of problems, Eight Below is still worthwhile just for the nature scenes alone. Children are bound to be entertained, as the film does not talk down to them, and the adults in the audience will be equally enthralled. My advice to whoever owns and trained the four-legged stars of this film is to congratulate them on a job well done, and try to get them some co-stars that can match their personality and ability. Even if the movie isn't as good as it could have been, I have to remind myself, it could have been much worse. Disney could have made this into Snow Dogs 2 - a sequel to the nightmarish sled dog comedy they released a couple years ago starring Cuba Gooding Jr. The very thought alone causes me to cringe. With a mostly honest and realistic tone and not a talking or wisecracking animal in sight, Eight Below is ultimately a refreshingly rewarding family film.
See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!