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Eight Below

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/16/06 21:37:09

"A Paul Walker film that's actually pretty good? Now I've seen everything."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Eight Below” played me like a fiddle. And I went along with every note.

It helps, of course, that I am a huge sucker for dog movies, nature movies, and survival movies. “Eight Below” is a dog-nature-survival movie, and yes, it’s from Disney, those masters of dog-nature-survival emotional manipulation.

The film is “inspired by” a true story, but it’s not as clear as such a phrase may sound. It’s actually a reworking of the 1983 Japanese film “Koreyoshi Kurahara” (aka “Antarctica”), which was itself inspired by a 1958 expedition in which a sled dog team is left behind during an evacuation; in that film, two dogs break free of their chains and survive for months in the wilds of the Antarctic. “Eight Below” retools the story to feature an American team (they also must leave the dogs behind, but more than two manage to break loose). Placing this expedition in 1993 is a trick that suggests to the audience a true story that isn’t actually true.

This is only the tip of the manipulation iceberg. The screenplay (from newcomer Dave DiGilio) lays the schmaltz on thick, deliberately keeping the human cast from returning to Antarctica as long as possible, just so we can slowly build to that scene in which one character realizes that yes, the leading man has been right all along, and going back actually is the right thing to do. These scenes frustrate (it doesn’t help that they lack the impact and urgency of the dog scenes), but that is their job. We need to see time pass, bureaucrats ignore the plight of eight dogs, immediacy dissolve into sorrowful regret. We need to see this so we can get anxious, perhaps even angry, at how the humans have left the dogs behind.

Which leads us to those dog scenes. Director Frank Marshall (of “Alive” and “Congo,” but please don’t hold that against him) understands that it is here that the movie truly works. He does a fine job with the human scenes, sure, but he really turns up the juice when the dogs are on screen. The animal performers here do what all animal performers do best - that is, create a connection between character and audience that is actually nothing more than a series of pet tricks edited together to create the appearance of daring animal exploits. Marshall does a wonderful job of putting this all together, creating a film that lives up to the fine tradition of Disney animal adventures. The result: these dogs know how to steal every scene, and Marshall is perfectly willing to let them. It is through them that the story is best told, through them that we come to care so much about the story. We want them - no, we need them - to make it.

Here is a good point to discuss how the movie refreshingly, but perhaps dangerously, refuses to shy away from the death and violence that is an inescapable part of nature. Grown-ups may want to be careful if bringing their little ones along, as not every dog makes it to the closing credits. There is loss, and there is conflict (among the dangers: a genuinely frightening leopard seal attack). The film handles this delicately, to be sure, but it is also overwhelming - we expect a Disney movie where everyone makes it out happy, and all the kids can applaud with delight. But no. The filmmakers refuse to sugarcoat things. (There is even a large plot point involving a decaying whale corpse. Parents, now’s as good a time as any to discuss the circle of life with your young ones.)

And that’s another example of the film’s manipulation in action. We’re given the standard Disney scene early on in which each dog is carefully introduced, cute nicknames and all, a scene so sugary that we half expect the canines to start talking, or at least put on some sunglasses and Hawaiian shirts. DiGilio and Marshall build up a certain expectation, and then bit by bit, they chisel away at those expectations. The emotional punch is then doubly powerful.

For those curious about the human cast, I will mention that we get Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood, Jason Biggs, and Moon Bloodgood as the dog handler, the scientist, the comic relief, and the attractive pilot, respectively. They all perform serviceably here (yes, even the usually unwatchable Walker), but then, none of them actually matter. While the early plotline about Greenwood’s science mission is needed to get the story rolling, and while Biggs’ antics create welcome chuckles, the movie’s all about the dogs, and the sooner the people can get out of the way, the better. (In fact, a few of the human scenes drag on a bit past their welcome, and there’s not one post-evacuation scene that couldn’t have used a trimming.)

With the humans properly shoved aside, we can get to what counts, namely, a grand adventure with heroic, lovable pups, set against a magnificent backdrop. The imagery (Canada, Greenland, and Norway substituting for Antarctica) is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with sweeping widescreen vistas overwhelming the viewer and emphasizing the lonely plight of these survivors. It all adds up to a thoroughly involving animal epic - schmaltzy, corny, endlessly pulling the strings, but doing it all so well that it’s so very easy to let yourself be swept along. Manipulative? Yes, but I loved every minute of it.

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