2½ stars (out of four)
"Eight Below" is the "Brian's Song" of dog movies. That is, if you belong to the species technically known as "dog people," Disney's latest family-friendly adventure about a pack of sled dogs abandoned in Antarctica without rope toys or bone-shaped water bowls will have you wiping puddles from your quivering cheeks.
"WHEN DOG FALLS DOWN HILL," I scrawled in my notes at a particularly harrowing moment, "JUST TOO MUCH TO HANDLE!"
That being said, "Eight Below," adapted from a 1983 Japanese blockbuster, is also the "Brian's Song" of dog movies: schmaltzy, feel-goody, inspired-by-a-true-story-y. It's formulaic and frequently over the top, 30 minutes too long and altogether too slow, but oh when those gorgeous, graceful pups tilt their heads just so love.
Hunk-of-the-hour Paul Walker plays Jerry, an Antarctic survival guide whose job is to chaperone explorers on dangerous treks, often with the aid of his eight best friends: sled dogs with hipster names like Maya and Max.
Jerry is forced to leave behind his beloved pack when he and his geologist charge are hurt in a mushing accident and airlifted to the nearest hospital. Just no room on the plane. Then the Storm of the Century moves in, grounding all flights and screwing up a heartbroken Jerry's plan to rescue the animals, now left to fend for themselves in the icy wild.
OK: You know how your dog gives you that forlorn look, cocking his head and dropping his tail whenever you leave the house? Now imagine that, but this time you're leaving your dog in Antarctica, in the middle of a subzero snowstorm, with seven adorably anthropomorphized friends, some of them with blue eyes ..
Which is why it's too bad that director Frank Marshall (a second unit directing vet of the Indiana Jones franchise) moves mechanically between Jerry's recovery--his frostbite heals in the U.S.; his heart does not--and the dogs' plight, exploiting our puppy love with repetitive Husky head tilts and Malamute kisses. Then there's some predictable flirting between Jerry and a hottie pilot named Katie (played by an actress named Moon Bloodgood) and many, many sweeping shots of our snowiest continent.
Walker and his steely blues have made a name for themselves in young Hollywood by looking good alongside other good-looking people. From "The Fast and the Furious" all the way to "2 Fast 2 Furious," Walker has displayed the kind of ripped pecs and rippling abs that win MTV Moon Men, if not much range. But no matter how authentically "boy" Walker is, "Eight Below" belongs to the dogs, with their remarkable emotional responses and intrapack relationship.
No matter that "intrapack" isn't really a word--these are the true human-animal hybrids. They may not be quite enough to free "Eight Below" from its triumph-over-adversity motif, but they'll certainly bring renewed energy to your kid's "Can I have a dog, puhleeeeeeeeeeese????" crusade.
Look on the bright side: At least now they'll stop begging you for a penguin.
Directed by Frank Marshall; written by David DiGilio; photographed by Don Burgess; edited by Christopher Rouse; production designed by John Willett; music by Mark Isham; head dog training by Mike Alexander. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: PG (some peril and brief mild language, may be a bit harsh for sensitive kids).
Jerry Shepard - Paul Walker
Charlie - Jason Biggs
Davis "Doc" McLaren - Bruce Greenwood
Katie - Moon Bloodgood