Eight Below Review
By Shawn McKenzie 02/17/2006
March of the Penguins may have been an average flick to me, but the hit Oscar-nominated nature documentary had to be part of the inspiration for Disney’s new dogs-in-peril movie Eight Below.
In January of 1993 (1993 was the last year that sled dogs were allowed to work in Antarctica), a team of experts working for the National Science Foundation filed base in Antarctica are preparing for the upcoming winter season. Dr. Andy Harrison (Gerard Plunkett) leads the team, including survival guide Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), cartographer Charlie “Coop” Cooper (Jason Biggs), and someone else named Rosemary (Belinda Metz…I’m not sure what her character does.) As they are getting ready to leave the base, bush pilot Katie (Moon Bloodgood), the ex-girlfriend of Jerry, flies in with American geologist Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood.) Davis is searching for a meteorite from Mercury that landed on Mt. Melbourne, which is located in a remote section of Antarctica. Since the ice is still thin, they won’t be able to take the snowmobiles there, so they have to use Jerry’s team of eight sled dogs. Pack matriarch Maya leads the Huskies with veteran Old Jack, who is set to retire soon; Shorty, who is the dumb but strong rebel; Dewey and Truman are twin brothers; the silver-haired Shadow; the redheaded Buck; and the rookie Husky, Max. While they make their way to Mt. Melbourne, they get a call on their radio about a giant winter storm that is quickly approaching, which means that they have to turn back. Davis convinces Jerry to keep going for a half of a day longer, since he hasn’t found the meteorite yet. The scientist finds it, and they head out, but Davis accidentally falls off a cliff and breaks his leg. Unfortunately, he lands on a thin sheet of ice, and it cracks, bringing the doc with it. Jerry has Maya rescue Davis and they finally make it back to the base. They all pile into Katie’s plane and head for the McMurdo Antarctic Research Station, but they can’t take the dogs, since there isn’t room on the plane. Jerry chains the dogs up and tells them that he will come back to get them in a couple of days, but when they get back to McMurdo, they are informed that everyone is being evacuated off the continent, and they won’t be allowed to come back for the dogs. Once he gets back to the U.S., Jerry tries to convince someone to bring him back, including Davis, who he thinks will have some money left in his research grant to rescue the dogs. With all the obstacles in his way, Jerry starts getting depressed and he tries to accept the fact that the dogs may be gone for good. It takes some advice from sled dog raiser Mindo (August Schellenberg) and the guilty conscious of Davis, following a guilt trip given to him by his wife Eve (Wendy Crewson) and their young son Eric (Connor Christopher Levins), to jump-start the rescue expedition. Meanwhile, back at the field base, all of the dogs, except for Old Jack, break free out of their chains after four days. They survive by hunting sea gulls, and in one stroke of luck, they come across the carcass of a killer whale (but they have to defend it from a vicious leopard seal though.) They have adventures of their own, like dancing under the Northern Lights, but they also have their share of tragedies as well. Over the span of six months, they try to survive while Jerry fights through bureaucratic red tape to reunite with his beloved Huskies.
I mention March as an inspiration because Disney used to be old hat at movies like this. Long before political correctness barred it, animals were allowed to die on film. After 1942’s Bambi showed an animal dying, there was a series of nature documentaries produced by Disney called “True Life Adventures” that presented real animals doing what they naturally do without any special effects…including dying. In the years that followed, Disney has played it safe. In this movie, the story is inspired by a 1957 Antarctic expedition that was made into the 1983 Japanese movie Nankyoku monogatari (Antarctica.) I’ve never seen that movie, but apparently, seven out of the nine dogs in that movie died. I’m not going to tell you the doggie body count in this one, but there are some that do die. I feel like I need to reassure parents that the deaths aren’t graphic (this movie is a Disney PG-rated movie, after all.) Younger kids might be scared or cry during this movie (I could audibly hear several kids sniffling during the screening.) The scene involving the leopard seal freaked even me out (it reminded me of the dead body looking out of the porthole in 1975’s Jaws or the little girl ghost who throws up in the red tent in 1999’s The Sixth Sense.) I have to applaud Disney for allowing director Frank Marshall, using a script by newcomer David DiGilio, to take some un-PC chances. Do you really believe that a movie that takes place over the span of six months portraying the survival of dogs would be completely happy?
The sad thing is that the movie had to have humans in it. Almost every other critic I have read has said the same thing…the dogs out-acted Walker. I would absolutely agree, since I can’t stand the actor. He always seems to have the same expression on his face, and his acting is robotic. Biggs tries to be the comic relief, but unless there is a pie involved, his humor falls a little flat (even the dogs do funnier things…like playing poker and licking human faces.) Bloodgood is cute, and she makes a credible character, but as the obligatory romantic interest, she is boring. Greenwood’s character is a little ignorant for a scientist who is supposed to be intelligent (he never seems to take the advice of seasoned pro Jerry, even after repeated warnings.)
Eight Below is a decent family film, but the movie might inspire parents to have to have the “life and death” talk. My mom pointed out that Disney did the same thing in 1957’s Old Yeller…and that wasn’t a cartoon either. If this movie becomes a hit, maybe it will be the resurgence of real animal films that don’t have special effects attached to them. As long as they don’t have Walker in them, I’d be willing to see more of them myself.
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