Don’t let the ads or the poster fool you, this isn’t “Snow Dogs” (thank goodness) and you’d be wrong to dismiss this as just another Disney dog movie. Inspired by real events, “Eight Below” is a first-rate family film loaded with terrific performances by two and four-legged actors. “Eight Below” director Frank Marshall and Disney deliver a film that satisfies on multiple levels and should find box office gold with this genuinely touching movie.
Disney’s “Eight Below” is based on a 1983 Japanese blockbuster which was inspired by an actual 1957 Japanese expedition. For this Americanized version the story is brought forward to 1993, a year chosen because it was the last year sled dog teams were allowed to work in Antarctica (they were banned to prevent the spread of distemper to the region’s seal population).
Paul Walker stars as survival guide Jerry Shepard, an all-around decent guy who spends months working in Antarctica with his beloved team of eight sled dogs. Right before winter kicks in, Jerry and his team are handed one last job of taking Davis, a geologist played by Bruce Greenwood, out to search for a meteor. It’s a dangerous task and one Jerry doesn’t agree to easily.
After a treacherous trip to the meteor’s supposed resting place, word comes that a storm is moving in fast and the group needs to high-tail it back to base camp immediately. Davis pleads for a few more hours and Jerry reluctantly gives in. But as the group starts their trip back, Jerry immediately regrets his decision to let Jerry have that extra time. The storm’s ferocious and to make matters worse, a misstep by Davis sends him flying off a 20’ cliff. Not a real supporter of the sled dog team leading up to the trip, after being rescued by Jerry and the dogs Davis’ appreciation for the work done by the canine crew grows tenfold.
By the time Jerry gets Davis back to the compound both he and the geologist are in desperate need of medical attention. Unable to take the dogs with them on the flight out to the hospital, Jerry only boards the plane with assurances from the pilot, Katie (Moon Bloodgood), that she’ll land and immediately return for the dogs. Chained in a line with the ability to only move a short distance, the dogs can only watch as the plane disappears.
When Jerry comes to in the hospital he quickly learns no one was able to return for his team. The weather intensified and flying back to get them would have been too dangerous. Everything he does to try and convince those in power to go back for the dogs falls on deaf ears, and the poor huskies and malamutes are left to face down the artic winter on their own.
“Eight Below” is just as ahhh-inducing as “March of the Penguins” yet it never falls into the trap of being cutesy. The dogs of “Eight Below” are allowed to act like..well...real dogs. They display all the appropriate pack behavior and although the audience may find themselves placing human characteristics onto the dogs, that’s not how they’re portrayed in the movie. These dogs don’t do silly human-like things, however they do convincingly portray eight very distinct characters.
Director Frank Marshall brings rookie screenwriter David DiGilio’s script to life with a firm hand, allowing the dogs versus nature story to unfold in a breathtaking fashion. There’s a truthfulness to the entire production that elevates “Eight Below” above most other Hollywood movies about dogs.
The harshness and beauty of nature is brought fully into focus and the best scenes of the film take place while the dogs are running free searching for food and trying to survive in subzero temperatures. As they work together to hunt down birds and to keep each other alive, “Eight Below” becomes more than a tale of incredible animals. It evolves into a deeper, more satisfying look at friendship, loyalty, and hope.
Enough can’t be said about the canine actors of “Eight Below.” They’re fantastic furry thespians. Fortunately for the audience, their human counterparts do manage to hold their own against the canine stars. Walker’s especially convincing in the lead role and works well off the dogs and off his human co-stars, Greenwood, Bloodgood, and Jason Biggs. Biggs supplies the film with much-needed comic relief as the emotional level is amped up, and he does so without overplaying the part.
In an interview I did with Paul Walker he summed up “Eight Below” by saying, “If you’re a dog lover, you’ll get it. If not, you won’t.” I’ll take that a step further and say you’d have to have a heart of stone not to fall in love with the film’s canine stars. “Eight Below” is a breathtaking, emotionally satisfying adventure film and is right up there with the very best live-action animal movies Disney has ever produced.
“Eight Below” was directed by Frank Marshall and is rated PG for some peril and brief mild language.