Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Eight Below
Starring Paul Walker and 16 dogs. Directed by Frank Marshall. Written by David DiGilio, based on Toshirô Ishido, Koreyoshi Kurahara, Tatsuo Nogami, and Kan Saji’s screenplay. Rated PG.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Dog Days of Winter

A story of canine survival, Eight Below is the work of pros.

By KRISTIAN LIN

In 1957, a Japanese expedition to the South Pole was evacuating from Antarctica for the winter when severe storms prevented a return trip to retrieve the sled dogs, who had been left tied down outdoors to await rescue. The scientists didn’t get back until the following spring, when they discovered that two of the dogs had miraculously survived by chewing through their leashes and foraging for food. The story was made into a Japanese animated film in 1983 entitled Nankyoku monogatari.

Now Hollywood has taken hold of the story, making the human characters into Americans and allowing more of the dogs to survive the Antarctic winter. The film is called Eight Below, and it emerges as a decent action-adventure yarn for the older kids. Mostly this is due to the direction of Frank Marshall, whose sporadic career behind the camera has yielded sturdy if unspectacular stuff such as 1990’s Arachnophobia and 1993’s Alive. He hasn’t helmed a feature film since the unintentionally funny 1995 flick Congo, but he’s kept himself busy on the business side of the movie industry as a producer. (How strange that both this movie and the one reviewed above were directed by guys from that same odd background.)

Paul Walker plays Jerry, the Antarctic guide and dog handler who takes the abandonment of the faithful animals to heart. He and the rest of the human cast are serviceable, except for Jason Biggs, who distinguishes himself as the team’s wisecracking cartographer. The focus on these characters’ jobs is good. Many Hollywood filmmakers use pop-culture trappings to prove that their young characters are cool; Marshall and screenwriter David DiGilio show theirs going about their work professionally, which is much cooler.

The humans aren’t the main attraction here, though, as much of the film is given over to the eight canine characters, each played by one dog in close-ups and another for the sequences where they’re pulling the sleds. Perhaps this is why the attempt to make each dog into a distinct personality doesn’t come off. On the screen, they all look pretty much the same (except for “Max,” portrayed by a dog with these piercing blue eyes), and they don’t have enough presence to carry the sequences without the human actors. Composer Mark Isham tries to compensate during these stretches and winds up turning in some terrible music.

Still, despite the noticeable lag in the movie’s second half, Marshall has a good command of basic elements such as pace and rhythm. The early sequences in which the dogs save the life of a meteor researcher (Bruce Greenwood) are well turned, and the scenes of them alone at the South Pole are skillfully interspersed with the ones of Jerry back in America trying to engineer a rescue operation while reconciling himself to the dogs’ probable deaths. Marshall’s direction is old-school without being stale and makes Eight Below into a fair piece of entertainment.


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