I made it pretty far into Eight Below without crying, but in the end it’s a losing battle. The theater was filled with the telltale sniffles of weeping moviegoers no more than halfway through this surprisingly wonderful story of survival, and while each tear was more than a little from each eye, Eight Below mostly earns the activity of your ducts.
It’s easy to dismiss a film like this, and I have seen hardened cynics doing just that already. Is Eight Below a great film? No. Is it the kind of film that will send children from the theater filled with an excitement for science, or Antarctica, or dogs? Absolutely, and films like that deserve to be made, and they deserve to be enjoyed.
Paul Walker is advertised as the star of Eight Below, but don’t be fooled – you’re really there to watch the dogs. In fact, every time director Frank Marshall takes us away from the dogs, you get a little frustrated. The story, supposedly inspired by true events (whatever actual meaning that has), has eight sled dogs being left behind deep on the Antarctic ice in the dead of winter when a massive storm blows in. Paul Walker, a guide for a science outpost who trains and loves the dogs, is filled with endless guilt and grief. The dogs are left alone in Antarctic for a stunning six months, as he tries to find a way back down to the ice – not thinking that he can rescue them but that he can at least honor their memory.
They survive. That shouldn’t be a spoiler – this is a Disney family film, and ending with all eight dogs as corpsicles would have been pretty uncharacteristically grim for the Mouse House. They don’t all survive, though, and that’s part of what makes the film work – the peril the dogs face in the least hospitable clime on Earth, their constant battle to survive, isn’t downplayed. And the dogs don’t make it by feeding on berries – they become hunters, and they feast on the corpse of a beached Orca. It’s a kid’s movie aimed at kids whose parents aren’t shielding them from the realities of life and nature.
The first act sets up the dogs and the humans. It’s the last days of the expedition season, and Walker is forced by his boss to take a meteor-hunting scientist out into the field despite the fact that winter is getting dangerously close. As expected, the scientist is a bit of a twit and gets himself in some bad trouble, and only the perseverance and smarts of the eight sled dogs get the guide and the scientist back to base in time. A badly frostbitten Walker is forced to leave the dogs at the field base as the biggest storm in 25 years approaches. The weaker members of the audience will break here, as we see the dogs chained outside in a row, and we know no one is going to help them.
In act two Walker mopes around the country, feeling totally bummed that he left the dogs behind. Meanwhile, the dogs manage to free themselves from the chain and begin their adventure. If there was a category at the Oscars for “Best performance by a four legged mammal,” I think that the dogs of Eight Below would be a shoo-in. Some talented (and beautiful – these dogs have stunning blue eyes) animals, some obviously great trainers and some excellent editing bring these dogs’ inner lives to the forefront. They never talk, and they don’t have to – each has a personality and we can understand what they’re doing from scene to scene. The film is a little guilty of anthropomorphizing the dogs, but what pet owner hasn’t read the clearest possibly indications of thought and emotion in their animal?
The main doggie arc follows Max, a headstrong young husky, the newest member of the team, as he goes from a clueless pup to an alpha male. It’s weird to be sitting there rooting for this dog, but you can’t help it – Marshall has given the film the bare minimum amount of cutesiness (and if you’re killing off dogs, I think you’re allowed a little cutesiness in the meantime) so you don’t feel so bad being sucked into it. Each time the story flashes back to Walker and his friends things slow down, but you’re never too far from a return to the animals.
Finally in the third act Walker begins to make his way back to the ice just as things are getting really grim for the dogs. I won’t hold back on you – this is where I began crying. I’m man enough to own up to that. It’s also where I jumped about two goddamned feet out of my seat – believe it or not, Eight Below has the best scare I have seen in a theater in almost a decade. The film spends its whole running time lulling you into thinking that every bit of menace will be telegraphed by exciting adventure music or something and then – wham! I won’t give it away, but be aware that this sequence may end up being a touch too intense for the younger kids.
I would have rather seen the whole film told just from the dog’s point of view, but even with the intrusion of clumsy human actors (Jason Biggs is especially irritating), Eight Below manages to be a gripping, engrossing survival adventure. It’s old fashioned storytelling that’s moving and exciting.