Dog lovers will be unable to resist Eight Below, which bodes well for the box office for this Disney adventure set largely in the frigid, forbidding terrain of Antarctica. Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood and Jason Biggs may be the nominal stars, but it's the canine players who carry the movie and will capture the hearts of viewers young and old.
Director Frank Marshall's movie is inspired by the 1983 Japanese hit film Nankyoku Monogatari, an account of a 1957 expedition that had significantly higher fatalities than the Americanized version depicted here. Novice screenwriter Dave Digilio moves the action to 1993, the last year that sled-dog teams were permitted to work in Antarctica. Walker plays Jerry Shepard, a guide at the continent's U.S. scientific-research base, accompanied by phobic cartographer Charlie Cooper (Biggs). The plot is set in motion with the arrival of Davis McClaren (Greenwood), a driven geologist on a quest to find some meteorite fragments from the planet Mercury. The expedition is risky, since it's late in the season and the location is distant, but Jerry obeys orders and prepares his team of eight sled dogs (Siberian huskies and Malamutes) for the journey. The mission is a success, but McClaren falls through some ice and suffers severe hypothermia-and all the while a major storm is threatening. Jerry transports the frostbitten scientist to the base, and the team has no choice but to evacuate immediately, leaving Jerry's beloved dogs behind. Bush pilot Katie (Moon Bloodgood), Jerry's ex-girlfriend, promises to come back for the dogs, but the lingering blizzard prevents her return before flights are curtailed for the winter.
Chained together, the dogs manage to break their shackles and set out across the harsh, icy landscapes, while back in the States, Jerry is racked with guilt and desperately attempts to gather support for a canine rescue mission. It's a full six months before he's able to conduct his search.
Marshall's film alternates between Jerry's angst and the resourcefulness of the dogs, and it's no contest which footage is more interesting. Walker is a physically fit young lead but not much of an actor; those handsome, noble sled dogs win the charisma contest paws-down. High marks go to animal trainer Mike Alexander, who guided the "actor dogs" and their sledding doubles toward performances that create individual personalities. You can almost sense them strategizing about how they're going to find their next meal, and there's one particularly ingenious scene in which they outwit some flying prey. Very young children will be upset that not all eight make it back alive, and there's one huge scare involving an animatronic leopard seal created by effects master Stan Winston.
Filmed in Canada, Norway and Greenland, the movie looks like a tough shoot but maintains the handsome production values one expects from Marshall, who directed the 1993 Andes plane-crash drama Alive and served as producer on the Indiana Jones and Back to the Future series.
Biggs, who now qualifies if there's ever a film called Eskimo Pie, offers broad, sometimes tired comic relief as a goofy sidekick with an aversion to airplanes and dog saliva, but Greenwood is persuasive as a rugged academic and Bloodgood is charming as the improbably comely pilot. But Eight Below is primarily a dog show, a blue-ribbon winner for animal lovers everywhere.