If Snow Dogs is a fairly typical example of the conventional Hollywood idea of a live-action family film, Eight Below is a typical example of a new trend in family films that includes National Treasure, Hidalgo, Two Brothers, Fantastic Four and The Legend of Zorro. This is a good thing, but not yet good enough.
Families with young kids don’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed (or buttonholed) into watching slapstick sitcoms every time they go to the movie theater. Animals don’t always have to talk or perform super-heroics. Stories don’t always have to center on family conflict. (If you didn’t bother to see, or remember, Snow Dogs, it was partly about an odd-couple father-son relationship between Cuba Gooding Jr. and James Coburn.)
Very loosely inspired by a true story (or, more precisely, by a Japanese film loosely inspired by a true story), Eight Below is a survival tale about a team of eight sled dogs whose gig at an Antarctic research facility goes south when the humans hastily pull out in the face of an oncoming blizzard.
Though at first the plan is to return and rescue the dogs after evacuating the humans, this doesn’t materialize. The dogs are left chained outside the research facility to face the Antarctic winter on their own.
Director Frank Marshall (a longtime second-unit director whose solo credits include Alive as well as Congo and Arachnophobia) and first-time screenwriter Dave DiGilio are willing to let the story be at least a little rough-edged. Both humans and animals suffer injury and serious risk of death, and survival isn’t taken for granted.
After the humans pull out, the film manages a real sense of anxiety as the count of days the dogs are left to themselves climbs.
At the same time, Eight Below is willing to go only so far, not surprisingly. Obviously the dogs must eat, which means that — barring occasional windfalls such as a few boxes of crackers in an abandoned human habitation and a rotting orca carcass that holds unexpected danger — they must hunt and kill. However, the only quarry the film depicts them preying on (with astonishing resourcefulness, admittedly) are flocks of gulls.
Realistically, it would have to be easier, not to mention more filling, to pursue a menu that includes Antarctica’s flightless inhabitants. But then family audiences probably aren’t ready to face the prospect of dogs killing and eating seals and penguins on the big screen — not even after seeing the seals themselves hunting the penguins in that penguin movie last summer.
Despite admirable location shooting in British Columbia, which stands in persuasively for Antarctica, there are other lapses in realism. A number of critics have already pointed out that the sun never rises on a polar winter, yet there’s plenty of daylight in Eight Below, and my friend Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer points out that, even at the end of their ordeal, the dogs look remarkably healthy and groomed. (In a much more scathing review, Film Freak Central critic Walter Chaw also complains that no one’s breath is ever seen.)
More problematic are a few of the movie’s glaring lapses to anthropomorphism. One particularly unfortunate scene begins as a playful throwaway bit in which the dogs stare, bark and leap at an aurora australis lightshow like canine poet Romantics — but suddenly segues into tragedy as one of the dogs falls down a steep grade and is killed.
This whimsical-morbid conceit strikes me as a failure of respect both for the animals and for the real poignancy of their crisis: A dog faces death, not because of cold or hunger, not because it was abandoned to face the polar winter alone, but because it was distracted and enamored by the southern lights? Boo.
Also problematic is the parallel human story involving the dogs trainer, Jerry Shepherd (leaden Paul Walker), as well as Jerry’s obligatory love interest (Moon Bloodgood), comic-relief sidekick (Jason Biggs), wise old mentor (August Schellenberg), and scientist Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), whom Jerry and his dogs aided (and whose lives they saved) in the first act.
The problem with this non-Antarctic storyline is that it’s boring. The real action is where the dogs are, and the film doesn’t really have anything for Jerry to do during the long months while the dogs fend for themselves.
Yet he’s got to care about their plight, or he comes off callous and unsympathetic. As a result, Jerry spends that antipodean winter (summer in the United States) variously trying to get back to the dogs and rescue them, moping about his inability to go back, coming to terms with his inability to go back and, finally, deciding to try to go back anyway, darn it.
What almost makes up for these various shortcomings — or perhaps does make up for them if you’re a dog lover and/or the parent of one or more young dog lovers — are the dogs themselves. Photogenic, expressive and sympathetic, they’re easily as watchable as the avian protagonists of March of the Penguins, even if the dogs’ exploits are contrived rather than real. (The unjustly neglected Two Brothers did the same kind of thing as Eight Below in this regard, but better.)
Certainly families could do a lot worse than Eight Below, and the fact that Hollywood is making movies like this at all is still somewhat encouraging.
Even so, I hope that this new breed of family-friendly Hollywood fare eventually rises above its current threshold and begins to produce entertainment that is genuinely worth grownups’ time, whether or not they have kids in tow.
Content Advisory: Intense human and animal peril, including a very startling attack scene involving a menacing wild animal and a couple of canine deaths; fairly mild depictions of predation; fleeting mildly crude language.
Steven D. Greydanus is
editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.