Sled dogs rule! In Eight Below, six huskies and two malamutes prove that penguins aren’t the only stars in Antarctica. This surprisingly impressive adventure tale from director Frank Marshall (Alive) escaped being Disneyfied, meaning that the animals are heroic, wondrous and believable, but not cute. “Restraint” is the operative word here — and considering how much inherent heart-tugging is in the story, that’s an amazing accomplishment.
Based on a 1983 film that documented a true incident involving Japanese researchers and their dogs in 1957, Eight Below is an updated and Americanized version that takes place in a National Science Foundation research base in 1995. The breathtakingly gorgeous scenery (shot in Canada, Greenland and Norway) provides a suitably majestic backdrop for the epic tale. Every canine gesture, every expressive, subtle turn of the head or arching of the tail, is made clearer when limned by shimmering white.
Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker, in soon-to-be-released Running Scared) is the team’s guide. He’s so focused on his work, even his former flame, bush pilot Katie (Moon Bloodgood, Win a Date with Ted Hamilton), can’t make a dent on his radar. His best friend is loopy cartographer Cooper (Jason Biggs, American Pie). Into the mix comes geologist Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood, Capote), who is determined to discover meteorites from Mercury on Mt. Melbourne, about 60 miles away. It’s so late in the season that the ice is too thin for snowmobiles, so the trek has to be made by dog sled.
The eight-dog team is led by Maya, a silvery alpha matriarch with almost supernatural skills. Max is a blue-eyed huskie youngster who time will prove a leader. Then there’s the gray Shadow; all-white/no brains Shorty; spirited redhead Buck; the twins Dewey and Truman; and Old Jack, a black and white pinto husky who is the granddaddy of the bunch.
After a near-fatal mishap in which Maya has to crawl along broken ice to save the drowning geologist, the team heads back to base. The storm of the century is approaching, and all the humans must evacuate immediately. With promises to come back and get them, Gerry leaves the dogs chained to stakes in the snow. But the bad weather prevents anyone from returning.
For six grueling months, the dogs are on their own. They break their chains and set out to find food. Considering the dearth of land animals in Antarctica, the task is daunting. Other travails include bigger animals with scary teeth, bad weather, group dynamics and treacherous landscapes. But as the preview says (although the movie doesn’t, since, oddly, the scene was cut), “You can never underestimate any living spirit’s will to survive, especially when they’re surrounded by family.”
Though two dogs die, their deaths are handled discreetly, so the movie is fine for kids and queasy pet-lovers. Sloshing through the mundane scenes with the humans does require fortitude, but you may discover, as I did, that those scenes serve as welcome respites between the emotional scenes with the dogs. Rated PG for some peril and brief, mild language.
– reviewed by Marcianne Miller