Title: Eight Below: Inspired by a True Story
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family
Director: Frank Marshall
Screenwriters: David DiGilio
Starring: Paul Walker, Jason Biggs, Bruce Greenwood
The screening of Eight Below: Inspired by a True Story was on the morning before a major blizzard was to overtake the Philadelphia area. I was hoping to make it home before the flakes started to fall. I did, but of course the movie, which tells a conventionally wrenching story of eight beloved sled dogs accidentally left to fend for themselves at an Antarctic science base when the inhabitants have to make an emergency evacuation, made me feel vaguely silly. Twelve inches of snow? Thirty degree weather? Really, how horrifying.
I learn from the credits that Eight Below was both “inspired by a true story” and “suggested by” the Japanese film Nankyoku Monogatari, released on video in America as Antarctica. So the true story, whatever it is, is at best at one remove from this Disney affair, which takes as its mission to be as tearjerkingly fanciful as possible. Paul Walker is the human hero, but the dogs are the stars, and the movie spends considerable time alone with them in the Antarctic, where they do things that I doubt any dog would even consider, including some fairly incredible acts of altruism (as the audience coos at the screen in unison). As an aside, the canine actors are also often more expressive than Paul Walker. Just sayin’.
Actually, this is one film that Walker doesn’t manage to ruin, though oh how he tries, as does Jason Biggs as his doofus sidekick. It labors hard and for a long time to evoke as few exasperated groans as possible: Walker’s Gerry Shepherd, Antarctic guide extraordinaire, seems to have genuine, sweet affection for the animals he works with, and the intrepid scientist whose foolhardiness leads to the rushed abandonment of the base (Bruce Greenwood) seems like a nice, reasonable guy. Whoever is responsible for the hideously stupid trailer, in other words, does not get fruit cup: most of what made me roll my eyes when I watched the advertising and vowed — vowed! — not to go see Eight Below is not nearly so offensive in context. Even the immortal line “you gotta take chances for the things you care about,” delivered by the ceaselessly dull-eyed Walker at what looked at the time to be some sort of gala or ball, ultimately makes more sense than one might expect. And another clip, the one where Bruce Greenwood wistfully waxes on “these eight amazing dogs,” seems to have been excised entirely.
The extended sequences with the dogs alone in the Antarctic wild are at least as impressive as they are silly, the ludicrous title cards helpfully giving us both the date and the number of days the animals have spent on their own notwithstanding. At one point, the dogs have a scary encounter with a leopard seal, and how the scene was filmed remains beyond me — was it a CGI seal? I honestly do not know. The animal action is flawless, and I could spot no obvious camera or editing tricks to facilitate it. I half-expected to be annoyed, but if anything annoyed me, it was the audience, which invariably interpreted desperate attempts at survival as just adorable. What the hell?
Eight Below becomes cloying in its last act, which also heralds the return of Jason Biggs, an actor with a filmography that can’t suggest anything quite this insufferable. There is a series of shameless scenes leading up to the triumphant rescue, and of course the rescue must include the scene where the hero thinks his most cherished friend is dead, but — wait a minute! — maybe not. These missteps aside, Eight Below steadfastly resists attempts to pigeonhole it into being merely one of the execrable Disney live action canon. It’s a solid adventure film.