Most kids love snow and dogs. Combine them in an adventure film, and the hook is set.
In “Eight Below,” Frank Marshall directs his first feature film since 1995’s “Congo.” But this Disney film, which opens nationwide today, puts him back in the snowy terrain of his 1993 film, “Alive,” about a rugby team stranded in the Andes mountains after a plane crash.
“Eight Below,” starring Paul Walker, Jason Biggs and Bruce Greenwood, is inspired by the true story of a 1957 Japanese Antarctic expedition that refused to forget the sled dogs it was forced to leave behind. That story also inspired a blockbuster 1983 Japanese film.
In Marshall’s hands, the story becomes a mostly inspiring family friendly tale, though one with scarcely enough drama to sustain two hours of running time.
We begin at a research base in Antarctica, where survival guide Jerry Shepard (Walker) and cartographer Cooper (Biggs) play host to Dr. Davis McClaren (Greenwood), a geologist who has just arrived in his search for a specific meteorite.
Shepard escorts McClaren to his search area using a team of eight sled dogs, all of whom are given unique personalities. There’s Maya, the maternal leader; Max, the young dog in training; and Shorty, Dewey, Truman, Shadow, Buck and Old Jack, the veteran.
When a nasty storm blows in, base calls the pair back. But McClaren wants more time to search. “You gotta take chances for the things you care about,” he argues to Shepard, who gives the scientist half a day to continue searching.
They eventually head back to base, have a BIG INCIDENT to keep audiences on the hook, then—getting to base—are told all must evacuate the area as the storm of the century heads in.
But there’s a catch: Their evacuation plane can’t carry the dogs too, so the canines get left behind—much to Shepard’s dismay. He promises to return immediately after the storm—but plans change and authorities intervene. They won’t let anyone re-enter the hazardous zone, and Shepard feels both betrayed and betrayer.
The movie then begins its second, and main, dramatic leg, with Shepard Stateside trying to mount a rescue mission, but he can’t coordinate funds and logistics for doing so.
We spend much of the movie cutting between Shepard’s efforts to get back, and the dogs fending for themselves. The dogs have different approaches to their predicament. Some want to lie down and die; others have more energy. Their antics are mildly amusing.
Months literally pass, and Shepard just can’t rest without knowing what happened to his dogs. Are they alive? Did they die? Where? What evidence remains showing what might have happened to them?
Audiences ultimately get the payoff, but not without investing time in some slow storytelling. A whole lot of nothing much happens for various stretches, with the inaction being punctuated by at least one fun sequence involving a leopard seal.
The scenery is beautiful (shot mostly in Canada, with extra footage from Greenland and Norway), and kids will probably find Biggs’ goofy Cooper someone to laugh at.
Tucked inside “Eight Below” are messages about love and personal responsibility. Early, when Shepard acquiesces to his boss and takes McClaren out on the dangerous hunt for the meteorite, McClaren tells Shepard, “If you didn’t think it was safe, you shouldn’t have backed down.”
And overall, Shepard is motivated by a sense of duty—something that ultimately transfers to some of his colleagues.
“Eight Below” makes a good point—”You gotta take chances for the things you care about”—but its story structure and telling filter out too much adventure to make it truly memorable.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for some peril and brief mild language. Reviewer’s Note: Very tame. But know that not all dogs live happily ever after.
Director: Frank Marshall
Writer: David DiGilio
Cast: Jerry Shepard: Paul Walker; Davis McLaren: Bruce Greenwood; Katie: Moon Bloodgood; Cooper: Jason Biggs.
The movie’s official Web site is here.