The late Steve Irwin took animal shows to a new, extreme level, but in the early days of nature films Disney was the pioneer. Whether it was Perri, a flying squirrel trying to make a life for himself in the forest, or two dogs and a cat trying to find their way home in "The Incredible Journey," the Disney philosophy was to treat animals like humans. Give them friends and ambitions, get into their tiny little heads to speculate on what they're thinking, and they become even more fascinating. Before talking animals, it was a narrative voice we heard trying to explain the animal's point of view, and it felt a heckuva lot more profound and touching than seeing their little lips move and hearing their voices. It was a lesson in nature, a lesson in survival, and if you had any love of flora and fauna, a lesson in photography and the magnificent beauty of the natural world.
With "Eight Below," Disney returns, in part, to their nature-film roots, offering the same kind of dramatic saga that theatergoers saw when they cheered on those dogs and that cat as they traveled alone across the Canadian wilderness back in 1963. In "Eight Below," it's eight sled dogs who have to survive on their own after a surprise storm kicks up at an Antarctica research station and the humans have to evacuate, leaving the poor four-legged fellows behind.
It's no surprise that Disney chose this Frank Marshall film to be part of the first wave of Blu-ray releases. Though the film was shot in British Columbia and Greenland, rather than Antarctica, the cinematography by Don Burgess is so breathtaking that you never suspect you're anywhere else but right on top of the South Pole. The vistas are, well, buena. And when the dogs are on camera, they're so expressive it's hard to believe that they're only animals and not actors. When the dogs are the focus, this film feels like a true wilderness adventure. You can't take your eyes off of them. It's when the script takes a detour and spends a bit too much time away from the dogs that, while the furry guys are doing just fine, the audience can start to feel a mite neglected.
These dogs don't talk, but boy, can they act. The most expressive of the six huskies and two Alaskan malamutes is "Max," played by a dog named D.J., who also starred in Disney's "Snow Dogs." Aside from the scenery, he's the real star of "Eight Below." It's not that the acting is bad, mind you. It's just that the dogs are so good that without them to pull the narrative along, the film really drags. Marshall seems to know exactly what he wants from his dogs, but he lets the humans go on way too long with furtive glances and knowing looks, all of which makes for a bit too much cheese. And for a while, it feels as if "Eight Below" is two films, with the dogs existing in a parallel universe as their owner, Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), who's a guide for the National Science Foundation research base, tries to get over having to leave his brood behind. He's thousands of miles away in the tropics, seemingly moving on with his life, and they're locked in a struggle for survival and eyeballing the airspace for signs of the humans coming back. That's the biggest weakness of this film. The human interaction is just a little too precious and the digression away from the dogs and the main story is just too long for it to feel like anything but a major detour.
As for the other humans, Bruce Greenwood is likeable enough as a scientist who's after a chunk of meteorite he thinks landed near the station, while Moon Bloodgood is credible as the lady pilot who's Jerry's on-again/off-again girlfriend, and Jason Biggs ("American Pie") provides comic relief as the sidekick.
In "The Incredible Journey" there were plenty of hazards along the way, and the most traumatic one here is a frightful battle between the dogs and an animatronic/CGI leopard seal that looks awfully real, especially the way the dogs were trained to react to it. Be warned, parents, that little ones will be traumatized not so much by the seal battle as by the fact that not all of these dogs survive.
Video: The pure picture—1080p High Definition—looks great on this Blu-ray transfer, with the 2.40:1 aspect ratio appropriate to the grandeur of the scenery. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of stark whites in all the glacial formations, but you can really see the Hi-Def effect in the faces of the dogs. It's funny, but in all of the Blu-ray releases, it's the small things that you tend to notice. Some of the skies in this one almost seem to have a little grain, but when you look at those cold noses and penetrating eyes, you see the clearest and sharpest detail.
Audio: The sound options are an English 5.1 PCM (uncompressed) 48 kHz/16-bit soundtrack, or an English, French, or Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Like my colleague, Dean Winkelspecht, I've been the most consistently impressed by the sound on the first generation of Blu-ray discs. Even this soundtrack, at 16 bits instead of 24, has an impressively full and rich timbre that you really notice during peak-sound moments such as the seal encounter or when the music crescendos.
Extras: Blu-ray still isn't providing much in the way of extras, though Disney is using the new medium to once again go back to its roots. Just as Disney had a habit of showing a short subject that in some way echoed or paralleled the feature film, they've included nature films by award-winning filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg on some of the first Blu-ray releases. This one features "Ice," a dramatic cinematic journey through frozen lands, with a musical backdrop. It's well done, and has a continuous play option, but you really have to be into scenery to like something like this.
The other extra is a full-length commentary by director Frank Marshall, actor Paul Walker, and director of photography Don Burgess. Though the film is "inspired by a true story," there's nothing in the commentary to fill you in on the incidents upon which "Eight Below" were based. We can only guess. Mostly the commentary talks about locations and the work that it took to film with the dogs. It's unfortunate that other bonus features from the SD couldn't be included, because one of those features showed the dogs being handled behind the scenes. But perhaps that will come with the next generation of Blu-ray discs. This is, after all, still a fledgling technology.
Bottom Line: There's nothing incredible about the humans' journey. If it weren't for that gigantic sag in the second act involving the people, "Eight Below" would easily be a 7 out of 10. This film had eight dogs in it, and the director needed to remember where everyone's interest lay. That said, "Eight Below" is still an enjoyable family adventure film, and it looks really, really good in Blu-ray.