Penguins, shmenguins. If you want some new insight into the codes of animal behavior, have a look at Eight Below, an inspirational adventure in which a team of sled dogs marooned in Antarctica fights to survive winter without benefit of man or Milk-Bone. In the process, the intrepid furry heroes upstage the two-legged actors of the piece with the ease of Rin Tin Tin. They may not be wearing tuxedos, like the lovable cast of thousands in last year's surprise penguin-instinct hit, but they get the job done when it comes to winning over an audience.
This is a Disney product, but before anyone who's already graduated from the third grade goes running for the exit, rest assured that director Frank Marshall (Alive) and rookie screenwriter David DiGilio refrain from having their star huskies perform heartwarming tricks, spout poetic wisdom or otherwise mimic Homo sapiens. Truth be told, there's a lot more Call of the Wild or White Fang in here than 101 Dalmatians. Even in Disneyland, dogs can sometimes be dogs. In this case, that might be due to the fact that Eight Below actually derives from a 1983 Japanese blockbuster called Nanyoku Monogatari (English title: Antarctica), a harder, colder, crueler piece of work based on an actual incident. Disney has softened the original story a bit around the edges -- but less than you might think.
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The eight principals here -- their character names are Max, Maya, Old Jack, Shadow, Buck, Truman, Dewey and Shorty -- have been thoroughly schooled by a Hollywood animal trainer named Mike Alexander in essential survival skills such as digging for shelter, performing ice rescues and fighting off predators. For the most part, the movements and actions of these appealing huskies suggest nature itself, bloody in fang and claw, rather than the Old Yeller school of anthropomorphism. Alexander deserves a lot of credit for keeping it real, and the semi-documentary style Marshall uses to capture the animals' personalities is just right. Still, one of the dogs' tormentors is a rather unconvincing, computer-animated leopard seal, and that says something about the age-old necessity of artifice in moviemaking. Even Robert Flaherty faked stuff when he shot Nanook of the North nearly 85 years ago.
If the best thing about Eight Below is its team of canine Americans, the worst thing is Paul Walker (Into the Blue, The Fast and the Furious), who appears as a survival guide and dog-musher named Jerry Shepard. An actor who has all the dramatic skill of a fire hydrant, Walker has apparently been inserted into the proceedings for the sole purpose of giving someone something idiotic to say when we aren't watching the drama of the dogs' struggle. As the movie's lame subplot would have it, an exploration team led by a rough-and-ready geologist (Bruce Greenwood) and a witty mapmaker (Jason Biggs) travels to Antarctica to confirm a reported meteor strike. Our boy Jerry provides the dog team. But when he and the scientists are badly injured in an accident -- the dogs save their lives -- and a major storm blows into the research station, everyone is forced to evacuate in a big hurry, leaving Shepard's huskies behind to fend for themselves. Conveniently, he passes out from his injuries once the overcrowded plane takes off. When he wakes up several days later and learns that no one has rescued his beloved team, he's seized by grief and guilt. Wailing and agonizing like a kid in a school play, he determines to put things right.
Thus does Eight Below split into two movies: the compelling tale of the dogs' struggle to pull together and survive, and the much less interesting one about Jerry Shepard's emotional trauma and his search for redemption. That the running time of the thing adds up to almost two hours says less about the requirements of drama than about its rather silly, two-track structure -- which, I'm chagrined to report, also includes a completely ridiculous love story. Director Marshall, cinematographer Don Burgess and the canine cast look very much at home on the Antarctic tundra (in truth, they filmed in British Columbia, 750 miles north of Vancouver), and that's the story we want to see -- the dogs hunting, playing and protecting each other, absent any intrusion by Hollywood hairdos like Walker.
At least no one sugarcoats the pill. In the end, this is a tale of uplift and survival, but tragedy takes a toll, too. Parents might want to consider that as they prepare for post-movie conversations with younger children.