Frank Marshall is a big time Hollywood producer. The list of his mega-hits runs from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Bourne Supremacy and dozens of other well known films. But, like so many other creative people, what he really wants to do is direct. In the early 1990’s he directed a trio of movies, (Arachnaphobia, Alive, and Congo, to varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. Congo really sucked, possibly explaining why Marshall hasn’t directed a feature film since 1995. Apparently, the directing bug didn’t go away, and he’s finally back at the helm for this Disney adventure film. In the process, he almost makes up for Congo and Ethan Hawke chowing down on his soccer team.
The plot for Eight Below isn’t particularly complicated. Jerry (Paul Walker) is a sled dog guide in Antarctica for a science research station. Loyal to his eight beautiful Siberian Husky dogs (he calls them the “kids”), Jerry is prepared for one last run this season, ferrying a scientist (Bruce Greenwood) doing some research on meteor strikes. But a powerful storm is heading the way of the station and with only one plane and one pilot, coincidentally Jerry’s ex-girlfriend Katie (Moon Bloodgood). The dogs have to stay behind when the team evacuates ahead of the weather. Katie swears she will return for them after dropping the staff off at the main base but the weather causes the main base to be evacuated also, meaning the dogs will be on their own for possibly six months of hard Antarctica winter.
The dogs on their own show off the strengths of the film, beautiful scenery and a stirring score. Marshall was a second unit director on Raiders and other films and here sends his second unit off to Greenland for some stunning Antarctica stand-in shots. The dogs are sometimes difficult to tell apart but they have a lot of personality and are introduced to us two or three times in the opening section as a way of helping us remember who they are when they get on their own. This is really the part of the movie that impressed people, including me, who might have been expecting a typical schmaltzy-fakey looking Disney tear jerker. The film and it’s canine stars pull off the most important trick in this type of movie, getting you to root for them and making you wonder just how many of the eight are going to survive to the closing credits.
While the dogs are attempting to survive, Jerry is busy trying to raise money to get to Antarctica to rescue his “kids.” This effort, interspersed with the far more interesting shots of the dogs, is the movie’s main weakness. Walker isn’t Bobby De Niro but he does a credible job as a field guide and his love and care for the dogs shows through. The scenes where he sulks about having to leave them or tries to convince people that is worth going back for them are pretty flat however. It’s also in this section that his romance with Bloodgood is given the most time. That has absolutely no spark and, other than making you wonder if they are recruiting ice pilots out of underwear catalogs, she doesn’t add much to the film. Neither, sadly, does the once hot Jason Biggs as Walker’s best buddy/comic relief sidekick. Cutting back on this part of the movie would have increased the pace and cut down on the slightly overlong 2 hour running time.
Still, it’s the dogs and the scenery that are the real stars here. This is all “inspired” by a true story and “suggested” by a Japanese film, Nankyoku Monoatari. I love the term “suggested,” as though the Japanese film stopped mid-stream and a little card popped up saying “American filmmaker, we suggest you remake this basic story of dogs in peril.” I’m not sure why some movies are based on a true story and this is only inspired by one, but my guess is the only thing this movie has in common with the actual event (which occurred in the 1950’s to a Japanese exploration team) is that there were dogs in Antarctica.
This movie fared pretty well with the critics and I think it was primarily due to surprise that it wasn’t as bad as the trailer led you to believe it would be. The trailer set out to make the dogs look like a canine version of the kids on Cheaper by the Dozen. Wisely, Director Marshall steers clear of any kooky shenanigans and tells the story in a straight forward impressive way. It’s a good family film with enough excitement to keep everyone entertained.
First off, the look of this movie is one of it’s biggest attractions and it looks crisp and clear in 2.40 to 1 widescreen. It also sounds great, which is important since a good section of the film is the dogs and music, with no dialogue. I was surprised at the length of the hiccup that is caused when the disc switches layers at an hour in, but that‘s a minor annoyance, nothing more.
The extras include five deleted scenes. The scenes include one in which Jason Biggs is actually funny, so I’m sorry they cut it out. Director Frank Marshall does an optional audio commentary which tells primarily what the shot was intended to do and why it was cut.
There is also a making-off featurette, calling “Running With the Dogs: The Making of Eight Below.” It focuses, wisely, on the dogs and the scenery. The casting and training of the dogs is discussed at length. Also, the locations (upper Canada and Greenland, mostly) are shown and there is an unneeded explanation as to why they didn’t film in Antarctica, as if anyone was wondering. Oh, the conditions are too harsh; what a surprise.
Finally, in a nice bonus, there are two commentaries. You wonder why movies like 16 Blocks can’t be bothered to put on one and this movie busts out two. Marshall appears on both, one with his producer Patrick Crowley, and the other with Paul Walker and Director of Photography Don Burgess.
All-in-all, the extras and presentation don’t add tons to the movie, but are pretty solid, just like the movie itself.