Like a pooch that jumps over its owner’s fence into the wider world, this flick about a team of sled dogs left to fend for themselves over the Antarctic winter when their human partners flee the onslaught of bad weather without them would have been perfect for a Sunday night network slot on “The Wonderful World of Disney” but is rather out of its element on the big screen. Nicely photographed and boasting a bevy of well-trained animals that will make canine-lovers ooh and ah, “Eight Below”–not the cleverest of double meanings–not only goes to extremes in anthropomorphizing the dogs but is unfortunately burdened with a human plot-line that’s decidedly weak and given far too much screen time.
Inspired, as they say, by a true story–very loosely, as it happens–the picture begins with an American scientific research group at an isolated base in Antarctica–guide Jerry (Paul Walker), cartographer Charlie (Jason Biggs) and pilot Katie (Moon Bloodgood), presided over by their team leader (Gerard Plunkett)–getting a surprise visitor near the close of their stay. He’s Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), an academic who’s tracking down a meteorite from the planet Mercury that he’s traced to the vicinity. Jerry is ordered to escort the professor to the site even though the change of season makes for a treacherous journey–one that has to be undertaken by sled rather than motorized transport; and the trip turns out to be a difficult one, with success on the scientific side but moments of serious danger in which the eight dogs, as well as Jerry, prove their bravery and skill. By the time the expedition makes it way back to the base, the injuries the two men have incurred require them to evacuate immediately, and though Jerry resists the plan, the dogs are left behind staked to the ground until Kate can take the people to safety and return for them. Unfortunately, a storm makes the return flight impossible, and much to Jerry’s distress, his beloved dogs are stranded and–he assumes–left to die.
From this point the movie splits into two alternating parts, one showing us how the dogs (or most of them, anyway) manage to survive, and the other detailing Paul’s desperate efforts to return to the camp and save his huskies. The canine-centered half is likable if highly speculative; after all, one would need some sort of doggie diary to get the facts right, and while the script portrays these pooches in practically human terms, none of them seems to have mastered the art of writing. But the canines are nicely differentiated, the locations (well captured by cinematographer Don Burgess) are striking, and their adventures–marked by recurrent titles telling us how many days have passed–are mostly watchable (although a run-in with a nasty CGI-produced seal may be a mite too intense for really young viewers).
But things aren’t nearly as engaging on the human side. Walker, slouching around rather doggedly (pardon the pun, please), doesn’t make Jerry a terribly interesting fellow, and Bloodgood’s Katie, who’s his romantic interest, is bland, too. And though Greenwood is his usually smooth, professional self, the hyperactive Biggs is more irritating than charming as the comic-relief mapmaker, who provides very little comedy and even less relief. August Schellenberg stops by for a cameo as a wise old trainer who tells the dejected Jerry in effect to get in touch with his canine side–a mongrel guru, as it were. Like Burgess’ photography, the technical side of the movie is sound, except for Christopher Rouse’s editing, which could surely have snipped twenty minutes or so from the two-hour running-time, and Mark Isham’s score, which makes its points rather too obviously.
So it’s difficult not to find the dogs strong and sympathetic creatures, but, alas, the human side lets them down in more ways than one. “Eight Below” isn’t bad family entertainment, but it will really be more at home in the living room than a theatre auditorium.