The Disney studios have excelled at making family oriented live-action movies for over fifty years. They started with "Treasure Island" in 1950, and they haven't stopped since. Some of their most famous releases have featured dogs--"Old Yeller," "Big Red," "The Shaggy Dog"--with prominent actors and wilderness settings, facts I mention because their new, 2006 live-action adventure, "Eight Below," features a whole slew of dogs, a number of fine performers, and a continent worth of snow.
The dogs finish first, the snow second, and the actors third.
This is to say I wish the Disney filmmakers had let the animals have more room in the story instead of giving the humans so much to do. Frankly, the animals outshine their human counterparts in the movie by a wide margin. This is not to say that Paul Walker or Bruce Greenwood or Moon Bloodgood or Jason Biggs or the rest of the cast don't do their best; it's just that, as W.C. Fields once noted, it's hard not to be upstaged by small children and dogs.
Frank Marshall ("Arachnophobia," "Congo," "Alive") directed "Eight Below"; David DiGilio wrote the screenplay; and Don Burgess photographed it, the filmmakers inspired by "a true story" as the movie's preface states. Apparently, they weren't the only ones inspired by the story, because the credits also tell us that the movie was suggested by the 1983 Japanese film "Nankyoku monogatari," which relates essentially the same tale.
Our present film sets the story in 1993 and concerns a group of researchers at a remote National Science Foundation base in Antarctica and a dogsled team they love dearly. The team consists of Jerry Shepherd (Walker), an expedition guide; Charlie Cooper (Biggs), a cartographer and engineer; Katie (Bloodgood), a pilot; Dr. Andy Harrison (Gerard Plunkett), an NFS science director; Rosemary (Belinda Metz), the doctor's assistant; and Dr. Davis McClaren (Greenwood), a newly arrived scientist searching for a meteorite from Mercury.
The first thing we have to wonder is if in real life the participants in this drama were all as beautiful, as movie-star attractive, as the actors in this film. OK, I know that it's a convention of filmmaking to cast beautiful people in lead roles; audiences prefer looking at pretty faces than common ones. But when the movie is supposed to be a reenactment of something that really happened, should we be reminded every moment by the actors themselves that this is, after all, just a movie? I quibble; sorry.
Dr. McClaren insists upon Jerry taking him out to a desolate area to find his rock, a trip they can only make by dogsled, so off they go on several preliminary adventures before the main conflict unfolds. I observed what some critics more callous than I might call "padding" in the film. No, I would never call it that. Without McClaren falling into several holes along the way and finally breaking his leg, we wouldn't get the rest of the story.
With the biggest storm in twenty-five years of big Antarctic storms coming their way and with McClaren in desperate need of medical attention, the team must evacuate the area in a hurry; but there is only room enough on the plane for the humans; they must leave the dogs behind. At least temporarily, because Jerry figures he can return for them directly.
It doesn't happen. With the onset of winter, Jerry and the team are not able to return to Antarctica until late the following spring, leaving the dogs to fend for themselves for over half a year. That's the real story: the dogs' struggle for survival, and if left at that, with just the dogs against the elements, the movie might have been far more engrossing.
As it is, the film's main action takes too long to get started, and when it finally does, it gets bogged down in Jerry's unsuccessful attempts to rescue the dogs and in his semi-serious romance with Katie. The film's entire first half is exposition, introducing us to the characters and their personalities: Jerry is brave and noble; Katie is ravishing and sweet; Dr. McClaren is initially cold but warms up; and Cooper is a typically wiseacre Jason Biggs, as in "American Pie." Then the movie's second half, which should have been given over entirely to the dogs, the filmmakers dilute by continually intercutting to Jerry's troubles.
The dogs, you see, are pretty amazing. They're gorgeous animals to begin with, extremely intelligent, loyal, full of robust good cheer, and enterprising, too. They manage to hunt and fend for themselves brilliantly. As a nature study, the film is fascinating, but as for the human side, it's commonplace. The dogs vying with a leopard seal for the carcass of a dead whale is one of the highlights of the movie, very exciting, very thrilling, at one point startling me out of my seat as suddenly as any good thriller might.
Moreover, "Eight Below" is full of spectacular cinematography--often stunning shots of barren, snow-covered terrain--with the action accompanied by composer Mark Isham's heroic soundtrack music (although the music's epic characteristics are also sometimes out of proportion to the events they're underlining). And the animals never cease to amaze.
Then the human melodrama gets in the way of nature, and the whole thing becomes a beautiful could-have-been.
It is probable that "Eight Below" looked better on the big screen than it does on one's relatively smaller home screen. It's the kind of film that cries out for a lot of space. Anyway, the Disney video engineers provide the picture with an anamorphic transfer that captures most of its theatrical dimensions, here measuring about 2.20:1 across my television. However, they might have provided it with a higher bit rate, because the image is somewhat on the soft, slightly blurred and fuzzy side. Well, that's OK for the dogs, but it doesn't make the humans or the landscape all that vivid. Nevertheless, it's not bad, and it may just be that I've been watching too many movies in high definition lately.
The audio comes to us via Dolby Digital 5.1, and it fares a little better than the picture. There are some good, strong dynamics involved and an equally solid bass. Additionally, the audio people use the rear channels to advantage in things like shifting ice glaciers and Antarctic storms, with a few nice subtle touches like the creaks and groans of ice floes. However, the audio doesn't have the absolute focus or transparency I would have liked, sounding a trifle round and flabby at times. I'm apt to be the only one to notice.
There is a decent if rather perfunctory set of extras on the disc. For a family picture, presumably meant for children as well as adults, the extras don't seem like the kinds of things that would necessarily appeal to kids. For example, there are not one but two audio commentaries, the first with director Frank Marshall and producer Patrick Crowley, the second with the director, actor Paul Walker, and director of photography Don Burgess. Listening to a few moments of each of them did not exactly stimulate my sense buds, but they are both highly informational. Then, there are five deleted scenes, about nine minutes' worth, with audio comments by the director. I found them of more interest than the full-feature audio commentaries, although they are in non-anamorphic widescreen. And there is a brief, ten-minute featurette, "Running With the Dogs: The Making of Eight Below," that gives us further glimpses into the filmmaking and the training of the animals. I didn't know that it was nearly impossible to shoot a movie in Antarctica, or that the crew filmed "Eight Below" in Canada. Well, I guess one barren expanse of snow probably looks like another.
The bonus features conclude with fourteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at eight other Disney releases; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Maybe you'll just call me a grumpy old curmudgeon (OK, you're a grumpy old curmudgeon), but I didn't find "Eight Below" nearly as exciting or moving or inspirational as I'm sure the filmmakers intended. The movie seemed much too run-of-the-mill to me, the action and sequencing of events fitting a pattern I could figure out from the opening scene. Yes, the film looks handsome, the photography is grand, and the dogs do their part admirably. Now, if it weren't for those pesky humans....