Disney's "Eight Below" is surprisingly compelling thanks to inspired performances by some furry actors and serene, but powerful icy landscapes. Following the waddling footsteps of 2005's "March of the Penguins," it looks like the old-fashioned animal adventure tale is back.
Loosely based on a real-life experience dramatized in the Japanese blockbuster "Nankyoku Monogatari," "Eight Below" centers on eight sled dogs that have been unintentionally left behind at an Antarctic research base when the worst storm of the century prevents safe travel. While their human leader Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker) frets about trying to get funding and transportation to save his canine family, the dogs themselves have broken free of their chains and have learned to survive through instinct and mutual support.
Animal lovers will appreciate the dogs' various personalities, which never become too anthropomorphized or cutesy (with the exception of a dog-playing-poker scene that the filmmakers probably couldn't resist). Instead, good casting and story-driven actions allow us to see that Maya is the noble pack leader and Max is the blue-eyed naive pup with potential. Shorty, Old Jack, Dewey, Truman, Buck and Shadow have their moments as well, some of them heartbreaking.
Director Frank Marshall slowly builds the suspense with on-screen text informing the viewers of the number of days the dogs have been on their own in the wild. Starting with a modest two days, then four, then 10, the numbers eventually climb well past 100, creating a mixed sense of awe, anticipation and dread. Even though you're rooting for the dogs, survival is by no means guaranteed. There's a realistic amount of loss in the film, so don't be surprised to wipe away suspicious moisture from your eyes.
Unfortunately, the human subplot isn't nearly as interesting or strong. Jerry goes through his own emotional journey learning to trust others and accept his own limitations. Walker's natural affinity for outdoor activity and dogs makes him a good casting choice. It doesn't hurt that the filmmakers contrived to have him shirtless in the opening scene either.
It's disappointing to see Jason Biggs ("American Pie") play Jerry's goofy sidekick Cooper. Although he injects the necessary sweetness and levity to the grim, isolated research base, he's such a flimsy caricature compared to the integrity of his four-legged co-stars. With that said, kids will probably love him. Bruce Greenwood as scientist Davis McLaren and Moon Bloodgood as sassy bush pilot Katie give pleasing performances and provide Jerry with a mentor and love interest, respectively.
With themes of friendship and tenacity, "Eight Below" is uplifting as well as humbling, a combination that effectively reminds us of what's important.