[Screen It]

(2006) (Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood) (PG)

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Drama: After being forced to evacuate and leave his dogsled team at a remote Antarctic outpost, a survival guide does whatever he can to get back there and rescue his dogs.
It's January 1993 and winter is fast approaching the National Science Foundation outpost in Antarctica. While the small team there -- led by Dr. Andy Harrison (GERARD PLUNKETT) and including survival guide Jerry Shepard (PAUL WALKER) and cartographer Charlie "Coop" Cooper (JASON BIGGS) -- would normally be getting ready to leave with the approach of winter, their plans are changed when pilot Katie (MOON BLOODGOOD) flies in with geologist Davis McClaren (BRUCE GREENWOOD).

He's searching for a meteorite in a remote section of the continent, but since the ice is still thin, they won't be able to take the snowmobiles there. Instead, Jerry will have to accompany Davis on the expedition where the transportation will come in the form of Jerry's dogsled team. Led by pack matriarch Maya and veteran Old Jack, the rest of the team includes Shorty, Dewey, Truman, Shadow, Buck and the rookie husky, Max.

As they make their way for a remote mountain, an immense winter storm quickly approaches, thus cutting their expedition short. After barely avoiding a catastrophe, Jerry, Davis and the dogs make it back to the base camp. Along with the others, they then receive orders to evacuate, but due to limited space on Katie's plane, they can't take the dogs. Thinking he'll be able to return in a few days, Jerry goes along with the plan, but then learns that everyone is being evacuated off the continent altogether.

Distraught and worried about his dogs that they leashed to a chain at the outpost, Jerry wants to go back to get them, but is overruled and eventually finds himself back in the U.S. From that point on, and as the days, weeks and then months pass, he does what he can to convince anyone to help him get back to Antarctica and try to rescue his dogs.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
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. While we'll have to wait for the behind the scenes featurettes on the DVD release to see if the Siberian Huskies misbehaved on the set (presumably one of Fields' "pet peeves"), 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 upcoming "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" scores as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 1, 2006 / Posted February 17, 2006

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