Eight Below

Y

Michael Rechtshaffen
This review was written for the theatrical release of "Eight Below."

Disney may have written the book on live-action animal adventure stories, but it has been quite a while since there has been a chapter as terrific as "Eight Below."

Based on actual events but inspired by the 1983 Japanese blockbuster "Nankyoku Monogatari" ("Antarctica"), this highly involving story about a team of eight sled dogs who are stranded in the harsh tundra and must fend for themselves for close to half a year, has been Americanized in the best sense of the word -- as opposed to, say, "Snow Dogs."

Naturally there will always be those coldhearted types who will cry "mush!" but "Eight Below" has the satisfying emotional tug of a "March of the Penguins" that should handily translate into a warm welcome at the boxoffice. Down the trail, the picture will fetch even bigger numbers on DVD.

While the original incident occurred in 1957, director Frank Marshall and screenwriter David DiGilio have moved up the story to 1993, the last year sled dog teams were employed in Antarctica (in an effort to protect seals from distemper).

Paul Walker's Jerry Shepard is a survival guide on a research mission who has grown quite attached to his team of skilled sled dogs. They have again demonstrated their prowess and loyalty by pulling meteorite-seeking geologist Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) to safety after breaking his leg on the treacherous terrain.

But when the onset of the mother of all winter storms forces an immediate evacuation and the severe weather conditions prohibit travel back to the outpost for months, pack leader Maya and her team are forced to brave the bleak elements on their own.

Meanwhile, back in America, Jerry is doggedly determined to find a way to rescue his four-legged friends, with a little assistance from his bush pilot ex-girlfriend (Moon Bloodgood) and a goofy cartographer (Jason Biggs).

Everything about "Eight Below" is refreshingly above average, from newcomer DiGilio's clean, uncluttered script -- he was in Disney's New Writer's program when he was hired to tackle the screenplay -- to Marshall's nicely weighted direction and the on-the-money performances from humans and canines alike.

Conveying the screen presence of a young Kurt Russell, Walker lends a convincing commitment to his lead role, while comic relief Biggs, rugged Greenwood and fresh-faced Bloodgood make for a crack support team.

Speaking of team, the picture's most remarkable achievement are those sled dogs (played by 16 animal actors) and their trainers responsible for creating eight very individual, very engaging characters in their own right. Somewhere there has got to be a plush animal factory working overtime, because Maya, Max and company are merchandising gold.

Behind the scenes, Marshall, quite in his inclement element after having directed 1993's "Alive," and cinematographer Don Burgess ("Cast Away") mine the maximum chill factor from the British Columbia and Greenland backdrops subbing for Antarctica, while editor Christopher Rouse ("The Bourne Supremacy") keeps things involving, especially during an unexpectedly nerve-jangling sequence between the dogs and a territorial leopard seal.

Eight Below
Buena Vista
Walt Disney Pictures presents in association with Spyglass Entertainment
A Mandeville Films production
Credits:
Director: Frank Marshall
Screenwriter: David DiGilio
Suggested by the film: "Nankyoku Monogatari"
Producers: David Hoberman, Patrick Crowley
Executive producers: Todd Lieberman, Masaru Kakutani
Frank Marshall, Christine Iso, Roy Lee, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum
Director of photography: Don Burgess
Production designer: John Willett
Editor: Christopher Rouse
Costume designer: Jori Woodman
Composer: Mark Isham
Cast:
Jerry Shepard: Paul Walker
Davis McClaren: Bruce Greenwood
Katie: Moon Bloodgood
Charlie Cooper: Jason Biggs
Dr. Andy Harrison: Gerard Plunkett
Mindo: August Schellenberg
MPAA rating PG
Running time -- 120 minutes