Advertised as maudlin dog cinema and starring Paul Walker, Frank Marshall’s “Eight Below” seems doomed to join the ranks of his other creature-centric disasters, “Arachnophobia” and “Congo.” But this based-on-a-true-story tale of eight heroic huskies stranded in Antarctica is surprisingly, perhaps embarrassingly, good.
The film begins with guide Jerry Shepard (Walker) escorting Davis the geologist (Bruce Greenwood) to a remote peak on the South Pole to recover a fallen chunk of Mercury. It is during this journey, which easily lasts for the first third of the film, that the true heroes are established, and bravery on Jerry’s part pales in comparison to his team of dogs. The sled team saves the ambitious geologist on no less than two occasions, dragging him out of cavernous fissures in the ice and retrieving him from frigid Arctic waters before he freezes. But despite these few topographical run-ins, the real action doesn’t set in until imminent forecasts of “the biggest Antarctic storm in over 25 years” are announced and Jerry is forced to leave his team of dogs stranded at the base station while he and the other bipeds flee to safety.
The remainder of “Eight Below” oscillates between the plucky team of malamutes struggling to survive in the Antarctic wilderness and Jerry’s travels across the States in search of funds for a rescue mission. Wracked by guilt, Jerry cannot seem to move on with his life until he arrives at some sort of closure. Continually questioning whether or not the dogs have managed to survive, punishing himself all the while, Jerry resorts to giving kayaking lessons to eight-year-olds along the Oregon coast.
Walker’s performance is unexpectedly satisfactory — his successful exploration of the deeply emotional attachment man has to his dogs will ring true to anyone who has ever had a Fido to call their own, and the Southern California native slips easily into the rugged, outdoorsy type he seems to wear so well (forget the misleading pretty-boy street racer from his “Fast and the Furious” days). Then again, perhaps expectations are inherently lower for an actor whose breakout role came in “Meet the Deedles.”
Despite Walker’s surprising finesse, though, the most compelling action of the movie belongs to the quadruped cast members. The remarkably well-trained dogs are undoubtedly Disneyesque and have been anthropomorphized to a certain degree (remember “Balto?”), but parts of the movie are vaguely reminiscent of “Wild America” episodes at their best. The dogs’ story is one of bravery, survival and loyalty, replete with edge-of-your-seat encounters with vicious leopard seals and rather disgusting scenes in which the dogs feast on a beached whale carcass. This action most definitely trumps the chronicle of Jerry’s trans-American travels, and audience members will find themselves far more emotionally invested in the welfare of the huskies than in Jerry’s distracting and underdeveloped romantic entanglements with pilot Katie (former Lakers Girl Moon Bloodgood).
“Eight Below” is far from Oscar-quality, and it doesn’t aspire to probe any intellectual mysteries or uncover any profound truths. Marshall felt compelled to include the formulaic comic-relief best friend in the form of cartographer Jason Biggs (who’s come a long way since “American Pie”), and the score is often melodramatic and syrupy. But taken for what it is — a movie about a group of dogs stranded in the Antarctic, most likely intended for audiences who haven’t yet reached puberty — it offers feel-good escapism with real heart.
All this being said, cat people should be forewarned to see a different movie. Much of the emotional impact of “Eight Below” depends on audience members being capable of empathizing with Jerry’s attachment to his dogs, and it takes a true dog lover to be able to sit through extended scenes in which the only actors are of the canine persuasion. But for those who have befriended man’s best friend, bring a box of tissues and be prepared to give your pooches at home a little extra love.