Disney's talking-dog comedy Snow Dogs haunts me to this day, but the new Disney picture Eight Below tells a mostly tough-minded story of ill-fated Antarctic sled dogs. In fact, Frank Marshall's film is loosely based on the 1983 Japanese film Nankyoku Monogatari, which itself adapted a true-life incident from 1957.
As Eight Below retells it, North American research scientists regrettably leave eight sled dogs to fend for themselves during the harsh Antarctic off-season. Bruce Greenwood plays Davis McClaren, the green Antarctic scientist who keeps asking for trouble when he arrives at the research base to search for the first documented Mercury meteorite. Soon, McLaren learns to fear his environment and rely on the sled dogs trained and tended by Jerry Shepherd (the unfortunately blank Paul Walker). According to Shepherd, the anthropomorphized dogs "love their work."
Unfortunately, a run of bad luck essentially forces Shepherd to leave his beloved team behind. Guilt-ridden Jerry is told to "be reasonable" and "be realistic," but he will not rest until he returns to his beloved team. Though you'll find no sunshine and flowers here, the dogs prove more resilient than anyone believes possible. There's more than a hint of Jack London survivalism to this story: the dogs become the leading characters when left alone to face one obstacle after the next.
David DiGilio's screenplay is not without its cheesy stretches, including a sidetrack to a Native American dog trainer who encourages Gerry to find "that one thing that will truly put your heart at rest." DiGilio also turns cute in a romantic subplot with Jerry's ex-girlfriend Katie (Moon Bloodgood), also the team's pilot; devoted dog-person Jerry shrugs, "I guess relationships don't really fit my lifestyle," but we know better. The comic relief of research team cartographer Charlie comes in spite of Jason Biggs' vigorous overacting. In a straight treatment, this overcooked ham would have to be sent back, but Marshall sort of gets away with murder by walking the line of pitiless Antarctic cold and family-film warmth.
Though perhaps not comfortably, Eight Below can rest alongside Carol Ballard's oeuvre of family-friendly animal pictures. Marshall, who made Alive and Arachnophobia, valiantly attempts to keep his two plotlines going: that of the dogs discovering their natural survival instincts and that of Gerry attempting to round up support and funding for a frowned-upon rescue mission. Results vary—perhaps unavoidably, the dogs steal the movie from their human co-stars.