Somewhere along the way prolific producer and occasional filmmaker Frank Marshal opted to damn the cinematic torpedoes (or at least the sage advice of the late, sardonic entertainer W.C. Fields) and sail full steam ahead in making films featuring animals. Having produced many of Steven Spielberg's pictures during the 1980s, Marshal cut his directorial teeth in the spider flick "Arachnophobia" (populated by lots of real and fake arachnids), while the last film he helmed, 1995's "Congo," featured lots of apes (albeit of the kind with people in animal suits).
And now, after a long absence and marking just his fourth directed film, he's back with the animals in "Eight Below." Based on a real life incident from 1957 that was turned into an immensely popular Japanese film "Nankyoku Monogatair" ("Antarctica") in 1983, the story features animal stars straight from Fields' worst nightmare. And there's no denying they upstage their human counterparts in this fairly entertaining and engaging drama.
When I first heard about this film, all I could think of was the abysmal "Snow Dogs" (the Cuba Gooding, Jr. flick where his Miami dentist character inherits a dogsled team), and I dreaded the thought of a similar treatment of the canines in this offering. Thankfully, Marshal and screenwriter David Digilio -- who moved the temporal setting to 1993 (reportedly the last year dogsled teams were allowed to work in Antarctica) -- opted not to place human attributes -- such as facial reactions and sounds -- on the animals. Instead, they let the adorable and undeniably handsome pooches just do their natural thing on the screen.
Dog lovers and most pet owners (even those who favor felines) will likely fall for the personable and resilient sled dogs as well as their story of surviving the harsh elements of the great icy continent as well as the incredibly long odds stacked against them. Thankfully, they're on the screen for more than half of the film's 120-some minute running time. For the most part, they look like the real deal (as compared to the usual use of animatronics or other special effect stand-ins, such as that here of a sea lion that looks quite fake but delivers one of the best pop-out, jump scene moments this side of the head-in-the-boat one in "Jaws").
Some of their militaristic hunting behavior seems a bit far-fetched (where they use complex and coordinated maneuvers despite never having had the chance to practice or learn that since they've been in sled dog service or training all of their lives). And their day to day survival is obviously fictionalized (unless one of the original dogs back in 1957 took copious journal notes that were then translated into Japanese). Nevertheless, it isn't difficult to get caught up in their story and personalities.
Which is more than you can say for the human side of the film. Until recently (before this effort and the short-lived "Running Scared"), I was never terribly impressed by Paul Walker as an actor and thought his casting as the lead could be a huge detriment. After all, he'd have to carry up to half of it on his chiseled shoulders, what with his character being tormented by having left the dogs behind at the base camp and then trying everything in his power to mount a rescue expedition to go back and save them.
Accordingly, that would take a variety of emotions -- ranging from guilt to grief and frustration to perseverance -- that I just didn't think the actor could pull off, at least convincingly. And while he's not going to earn any sort of nominations for his performance here, it's easily some of Walker's best work to date, especially when he's with the dogs when there are some genuinely moving, emotional moments.
Unfortunately, his love for the dogs doesn't translate that well into a semi-romantic subplot featuring his character still being hung up on a past flame -- played by Moon Bloodgood -- who's now serving as his pilot in and out of Antarctica. Jason Biggs (of "American Pie" fame) and Bruce Greenwood are decent as the best friend and catalytic characters (the latter hires Walker and his sled dog team to try to find a meteorite, all as a massive winter storm quickly approaches).
Marshal and company can't avoid the plot's episodic nature -- the story unfolds over more than five months -- and their back and forth storytelling technique -- alternating between the dogs' survival and Jerry's attempts to mount a rescue mission -- only further accentuates the fragmented approach.
It's not a horrible flaw, but it does seem to dampen what should have been some increasingly mounting emotional and dramatic momentum. Even so, you'll be hard pressed not to be rooting for their success and reunion. An interesting side note is that Marshal also directed "Alive," the 1993 film about the Uruguayan soccer team that crashed in the Andes and turned to cannibalism to survive. Thankfully, the dogs don't resort to that tactic here.
Aside from the aforementioned fabricated sea lion and a nighttime scene featuring the "southern lights," tech credits are top-notch. With locales such as Smithers, Canada, Greenland and Stewart, British Columbia filling in for Antarctica, most viewers will likely feel they're seeing the real thing, especially with many sweeping aerial shots of the snowy and beautiful, if inhospitable environs.
With this and "March of the Penguins," perhaps we're seeing a cinematic renaissance in the seventh continent. Who knows, maybe they'll next remake "Ice Station Zebra," move it to the other side of the world and populate it with the title animal characters.
Until then (let's hope nobody gets any "bright" ideas), we can sit back and be fairly entertained by this story of both human and canine pluck and perseverance. Rather mediocre when the humans are on camera but fairly entertaining and even enthralling when the pups are, "Eight Below" earns a recommendation.