Disney has found the perfect film formula for Paul Walker. Keep him off the screen, or better still keep him quiet. Eight Below stars Paul Walker as a guilt-ridden mush-master but the real stars of the movie are the dogs, while Paul serves as in-between dog filler.
Guided by career second unit director Frank Marshall (he's been second banana on all three Indiana Jones movies, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Seabiscuit), Eight Below tells the story of eight Antarctic sled dogs who risk their lives to save an imperiled scientist, and are then abandoned at the bottom of the world. Their owner is a guide named Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker), and when his team is forced into an emergency evacuation from their Antarctica research base, he only agrees to leave his dogs chained outside as long as someone agrees to go right back and get them. Injured and facing serious frostbite, Gerry passes out in mid-airlift.
When he wakes up days have passed and no one has gone back to get his heroic animals. Now it's too late. Antarctic winter has set in and the storms are too fierce for travel. It'll be months before Gerry can find a way back to his old base camp, leaving his beautiful dogs to fend for themselves in the world's most inhospitable climate. No one expects them to live, in fact there's a pretty good chance they won't even get off their chain in front of the research base. But facing death by cold and starvation, the dog pack rips free of their chains and braves the Antarctic wilderness to make an attempt at survival.
Eight Below avoids a lot of the worst pitfalls you might expect from a Disney movie featuring animals. For instance, though they're all given cutesy names, the canines don't talk, nor are they given overly human traits. Instead, Marshall's movie takes an almost documentary-like approach to filming its animals. His movie has more in common with March of the Penguins than it does Milo & Otis. In fact, at times it's a lot like a modern retelling of Jack London's classic masterpieces 'Call of the Wild' or 'White Fang'. With a few exceptions, for the most part the dogs behave like dogs, making the movie a fascinating, beautiful exploration of pack animal behavior and desperate, instinctual survival. What a welcome relief from the usual pandering kiddietainment.
There are a few hiccups though as the film cuts between Gerry's struggle to get back to his furry family, and the dog pack's fight to live on in a completely inhospitable, subzero, barren wasteland. There's a terrible, almost silly scene with a computer animated leopard seal that looks a lot like a dinosaur, and then there's Paul Walker who still hasn't managed to find a way to display more than one or two emotions on screen. Neither of the two emotions in his repertoire fits with what his character is going through, and for Walker it's a struggle to find the heart of his character's story with such limited ability. But Paul's screen time is cut in half since he's sharing it with the dogs, and with what he has he should probably get some credit for really trying. At least he doesn't say 'Bro' in this one.
Eight Below is an eye-catching adventure with eight striking, energetic, furry stars. The dogs are absolutely beautiful, and outshine a lot of the little flaws (like Paul) plaguing their movie. Dave DiGilo's screenplay (adapted from a Japanese film) doesn't pull any punches, and capably balances the demands of realism and family-friendly entertainment. The movie's not afraid to hurt you, and its happy ending doesn't come without first facing sadness.