Gone to the dogs
The dogs in Eight Below are absolutely beautiful. They have major star power, look great on film and they succeed in making the viewer care about their characters. They also act circles around their human co-stars in this flaccid Disney film that is done in by the remarkably uncharismatic presence of Paul Walker and the eternally annoying Jason Biggs.
A storm attacks an Antarctic outpost, causing its human inhabitants to bug out early and leave their sled dogs behind. The intent is to come back and rescue them, but the storm segues into a terrible winter, making it impossible to fly back in and pull the dogs out. The dogs eventually realize they are on their own, free themselves from their restraints and go about the business of trying to survive in hostile weather conditions.
Basically, everything involving the dogs is the stuff of good movies. All the canines handle their screen time with nicely nuanced performances that require no narration and no subtitles. Their story is intriguing.
Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of screen time dedicated to Walker and his character’s crusade to hitch a ride back to the Antarctic to save his pets. Walker (Running Scared, The Fast and the Furious) is not an electrifying screen presence, and he can inspire naps among those not taken in by his matinee-idol looks.
Jason Biggs of American Pie fame is cast as the comic relief for the film, and this boy’s shtick is getting old. His character is afraid of flying and gets all upset if dogs try to kiss him. So, of course, we’re treated to multiple moments of Biggs overacting as a dog slobbers on him or Biggs looking scared and anxious inside the nasty helicopter. The guy isn’t funny … Saving Silverman, Anything Else and the damned Pie movies proved that. The funniest thing he ever did was his cameo in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and that was five minutes’ work.
Bruce Greenwood, who played JFK in Thirteen Days, shows up as the eager scientist looking for a Mercury meteor and putting everybody’s lives in jeopardy for the sake of a rock. He would normally have the bad-guy role, but the film is supposed to be uplifting, so the script allows him a chance to redeem himself. Greenwood, normally a reliable actor, is as wooden as Walker here, as if time spent hanging around the actor infected him like a virus.
When the film breaks away from the meandering human storyline, it has life. While it’s a safe bet that some of the dogs will survive, not knowing the actual number of pooches that will perish does give the film a certain level of suspense. One sequence involving a nasty leopard seal scared the living shit out of me and is certain to make little ones cry for mommy. Seriously, it’s one of the biggest scary jolts I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. It would be more at home in the next Alien vs. Predator movie than a happy Disney flick.
The scenery of the film is predictably beautiful. Cinematographer Don Burgess does a nice job filming the landscapes and capturing the dogs in all their splendor. Director Frank Marshall, who did the “Let’s eat the passengers!” thriller Alive, handles the animals well. It’s a shame he allowed for the human element to be so banal.
I’m not giving the film a passing grade, but I will say it’s worth seeing for the dogs. If you’re OK with weeding through pap for some good action-adventure, it’s worth a matinee. All in all, about 45 minutes of the movie are decent viewing. If one of the dogs had actually eaten Jason Biggs rather than just spitting on him, that would’ve qualified as high entertainment.