Eight Below

on February 17, 2006 by Mark Keizer
Director Frank Marshall must have had a traumatic childhood experience at summer camp, because in his fourth film as director, he again explores the great outdoors and finds them dangerous. Consider that two of his first three films, "Alive" and "Congo," saw their hero's lives threatened in the snow-swept Andes and the African jungle, respectively.

In his latest, "Eight Below," based on the 1983 Japanese film "Nankyoku Monogatari." he revisits the treacherous snow, this time bringing with him eight adorable sled dogs. These six Siberian huskies and two Malamutes are the main mode of transportation at an Antarctic science station manned by survival guide Jerry (Paul Walker) and cartographer Cooper (Jason Biggs). The station is visited by a geologist named Davis (Bruce Greenwood, always a pleasure), who has arrived to find a meteorite that landed in the area.

To find the space rock, Jerry and Davis round up the dogs, who pull the duo, their gear and their sled over snow and ice (beautifully captured by dp Don Burgess). Before departure, as a sort of canine roll call, Jerry introduces the dogs, giving them instantly-forgotten names. In an unintentionally funny transposition of genre clich├ęs, one of the hounds is a 10-year veteran scheduled to retire after this season. So we all know what happens to him.

On the way back to base, we witness the bravery and intelligence of the dogs when one of them saves Davis, who has fallen through the ice and broken his leg. Upon returning to the station, the team learns they're being evacuated due to incoming bad weather. There's no room for the dogs on the first evac trip, but helicopter cutie Katie (Moon Bloodgood) promises to return within hours to retrieve them. However, when the enormous storm hits, then gives way to an unforgiving winter, rescue becomes impossible and the dogs are left to fend for themselves.

The middle-third of the movie intercuts between the dogs surviving for months on dead birds and leftovers from an abandoned Russian outpost and a guilt-ridden Jerry trying to mount a rescue that no one will fund and no one believes will result in finding the dogs alive.

Watching the dogs hunt for food, protect each other and communicate with barks and steely glares is where the movie shines. Thankfully, Marshall chronicles their ordeal with no sentimentality or mawkishness and precious few concessions to the Disney emo-formula. The film is on firm ground whenever the dogs are center stage. However, scripter David DiGilio, recipient of Disney's 2001 Screenwriting Fellowship, betrays his inexperience whenever people are around. It doesn't help that Paul Walker is an amiable dude but a bland presence and Biggs bugs bigtime in his comic relief role. At 120 minutes, the film eventually overstays its welcome, especially since the humans aren't as interesting (or huggable) as the dogs. Still, no flaw is fatal in this respectable piece of family entertainment. These dogs, as it turns out, can do anything -- even makes us ignore the rough patches in a Disney movie. Starring Paul Walker, Jason Biggs and Bruce Greenwood. Directed by Frank Marshall. Written by David DiGilio. Produced by David Hoberman and Patrick Crowley. A Buena Vista release. Adventure. Rated PG for some peril and brief, mild language. Running time: 120 min

Tags: Paul Walker, Jason Biggs and Bruce Greenwood. Directed by Frank Marshall. Written by David DiGilio. Produced by David Hoberman and Patrick Crowley. A Buena Vista, adventure

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