Paul Walker isn’t wooden, nor is he quite plastic. Think of the bronzed bohunk as particleboard.
He’s cheaper, workable and usually does just fine as a replacement for the real thing. But try to pound him too hard and fit him in where he doesn’t belong and he becomes chipped, useless trash.
Walker’s used to being upstaged by his co-stars — muscle cars, tractor-trailers, Jessica Alba. But he’s never been as expressive with those who outshine him as he is with the dogs of Eight Below. It’s an emotionally gripping survival story with jaw-dropping cinematography, a straightforward sense of Antarctic danger and — brace yourself — good work from Walker.
The director of this mostly sugar-free Disney film is Frank Marshall, who cut his teeth on second-unit scenery for Steven Spielberg’s 1980s films and previously directed the far-bloodier snowbound-situation movie Alive.
With help from cinematographer Don Burgess, Marshall marvels over the land’s splendor. But it’s a keen awareness of Antarctica’s aggressively real dangers that propels Eight Below, whether it’s the hard, shiny nubs of frostbitten fingers, the sheet-white skin of someone suffering hypothermia or, yes, the fates that can befall some of the courageous canines.
The film is neither graphic nor gullible about nature’s perils, and there’s no kindly, warm-throated narration from Morgan Freeman to soften the blows. There are, however, some penguins, which, as cute as they are, do not bode well for Eight Below’s opening moments.
Aside from pointless inserts of these “awww” animals du jour, we’re treated to one of the dogs playing poker and “comic relief” Jason Biggs clowning around like a sidekick in an animated Disney movie. Cooper the cartographer wears Bermuda shorts over his Long Johns and wears his hair like a duster you’d not think twice of throwing out. At least this nonsense ends quickly.
Walker plays Jerry Shepherd, who’s stationed at an Antarctic research base funded by the National Science Foundation. Arriving at the base to track down a meteorite from Mercury is UCLA scientist Davis McLaren (Bruce Greenwood), who’ll need the base’s eight-dog team for his search.
They are: Malamutes Shadow and Buck; twins Dewey and Truman; pack leaders Maya and Old Jack; and Shorty and Max, the latter the youngest pup of the bunch who emerges as the lead character. More than their master, Jerry is a father figure to the dogs (he calls them his “kids”) and his thoughts are more with them than any of his human counterparts at the base. (Walker’s seeming inability to interact with humans was bound to pay off some time.)
Davis remembers the dogs’ names upon first introduction, and the movie never turns him into a discover-at-all-costs, dog hating, backstabbing bad guy. He tempts danger by concealing the expedition’s true destination to Jerry and staying out longer than he should in “the worst Antarctic storm in 25 years.” But his pleas to Jerry’s exploratory nature are genuine, not villainous.
But Davis’ inexperience leads to a broken leg for him, nerve-threatening frostbite for Jerry and a long-haul rescue for the dogs. With too much weight in a plane to carry all the people and pooches, the human team medically evacuates Jerry and Davis with a plan to return later for the dogs.
But as the winter storm worsens, all flights are canceled and the dogs could be left there until spring hits. From there, the movie cuts between the physical struggles of the dogs and the emotional struggle of Jerry, bartering with whomever he can to get back and save them.
The octet’s endurance test portrays the working dogs as one might expect them to behave and with no cutesy behavior or subtitles for barking. Only the overly dramatic pause of the onscreen ticker for the dogs’ days on their own and a shoddy computer-generated leopard seal detract from their plight. And only the hardest-hearted lover of cats couldn’t be affected by the story’s stinging, sad moments, which lead to a resonant finale.