OK, so I managed to pick the coldest weekend of the winter to see Eight Below, much of whose action is set in Antarctica. And I had just spent some time in the morning with four wonderful dogs at the Humane Society before going to the theater to see a film largely about...eight wonderful dogs. They are sled dogs, and the story"”"inspired by" an actual event-- involves their being left at a research station for 175 days before being rescued. Rated "PG," mostly for suspense and some violence, it proves an excellent family offering from the Disney folks.
The introductions are efficiently done as we meet the team (each of whom is portrayed by two dogs) and their owner, guide Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), his comic sidekick, Cooper (Jason Biggs), and Shepard's ex-girlfriend, pilot Katie (Moon Bloodgood). To their research station comes Dr. Davis McLaren (Bruce Greenwood), a scientist in search of a meteorite from Mercury.
Trouble is, he wants to go in the opposite direction from the one Jerry has been scouting out, and a much more dangerous one, to boot. Various adventures ensue, delaying their return as a major storm threatens. The doc breaks his leg, Jerry gets severe frostbite, and the research team has to pull out in a hurry, promising Jerry that Katie will return immediately to rescue the dogs.
But the weather shuts them down, the "no-fly" season sets in, and the dogs"”left chained together outside the locked-up station"”have to fend for themselves. How they (mostly) get free and (mostly) survive constitutes the interesting portion of the film's remainder. Director Frank Marshall crosscuts between their plight and Jerry's attempts Stateside to get someone to take him back to Antarctica and rescue them, along with his relationship with Katie.
The real interest, for both kids and adults, lies in the dogs' survival. They catch seagulls; they break into a shed with food; they outsmart a sea leopard to gnaw on the carcass of a beached whale, in perhaps the only segment where parents will need to provide some comfort to smaller children. Cinematographer Dan Burgess and several other crews take advantage of the stunning scenery of British Columbia, Greenland, and Norway as stand-ins for Antarctica. And the combined efforts of Stan Winston's studios and Industrial Light and Magic do some effective work with special visual effects to recreate the dangers the dogs must overcome.
Parental Advisory: a couple of the dogs die in the film's course, though the filmmakers handle it discreetly. On the whole, the Disney people have here returned to the sort of film that established their reputation for solid fare. It's an unabashedly predictable, "feel good" flick, one that keeps the kids in their seats throughout and will likely give their parents some nostalgic pleasure.