Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Eight Below

EIGHT BELOW (Frank Marshall, 2006)

A team of sled dogs is left behind to survive the Antarctic winter in EIGHT BELOW. Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker) trains and cares for the pack at the scientific outpost. He leads a visiting scientist’s expedition to find a meteorite from Mercury. Although an encroaching storm threatens to cut short the search, Jerry agrees to put off their return a little while longer at the request of Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), the scientist responsible for funding the trip. Fighting their way through the storm, Jerry and Davis make it back, but Davis breaks his leg en route and Jerry has frostbite.

With the evacuation window shrinking, the team tells Jerry that they must leave immediately to get them medical attention and get out safely. Jerry insists that the dogs come along, but there isn’t enough room on the plane for them. He’s told that a return flight will be made for the dogs, so they are chained in place to keep them from running off. The inclement weather prohibits any rescue for months, though. Once back in the United States, Jerry works tirelessly to get back to Antarctica, whether it means finding that the dogs have perished or not.

If director Frank Marshall had been willing to take a risk, he might have concentrated EIGHT BELOW’S second half exclusively on the dogs and their predicament. The humans are less interesting once they leave the cold, especially when all Jerry does is fail to convince anyone to take him back to Antarctica and mope about it. The film’s best scenes focus on the dogs as they wriggle out of their chained collars and struggle for self-preservation in the harsh climate. EIGHT BELOW doesn’t anthropomorphize the dogs or play down the jeopardy they are in, creative choices that bolster the film’s realism. While this is a family film, there are some moments that may scare kids. In the best and most nerve-wracking scene, a leopard seal emerges from an orca’s carcass to chase off a dog looking for food. (After EIGHT BELOW and their villainous role in MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, seals need a better agent.)

EIGHT BELOW presents spectacular shots of the frozen land and documents the adventure of traversing the icy waters and terrain. It fits well into the tradition of live action Disney animal films that capture the imaginations of kids while possessing enough intelligence and thrills to entertain parents too.

Grade: B-

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