Disney's found the perfect film formula for Paul Walker: keep him off the screen, or, that failing, at least keep him quiet. Eight Below stars Walker as a guilt-ridden mush-master, but the real stars of the movie are the dogs, with Walker serving only as in-between-dog filler. It's a good choice.
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, then are abandoned at the bottom of the world. Their owner is a guide named Gerry Shepherd (Walker); when his team is forced into an emergency evacuation from their Antarctica research base, he agrees to leave his dogs chained outside only if someone agrees to immediately return for them. Injured and exhausted, Gerry passes out mid-airlift.
When he wakes up, days have passed and no one has gone back for the dogs. With the brutal Antarctic winter setting in, 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 Huskies to fend for themselves in the world's most inhospitable climate. No one expects them to live; in fact, it's damned unlikely they'll 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 in an attempt at survival. The rest of the film cuts between Gerry's struggle to get back to his furry family and the dog pack's fight to survive in a completely inhospitable, subzero, barren wasteland.
Eight Below avoids much of the worst kind of stuff we've come to expect from a Disney movie featuring animals. Though they're all given cutesy names, the dogs don't talk, nor are they overly anthropomorphized. Instead, Marshall's movie takes an almost documentary-style approach to filming its animals. His film 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 few exceptions, 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 kiddie-tainment.
There are a few hiccups, though. There's a terrible, almost silly scene with a viscious, computer-animated leopard seal that looks a lot like a dinosaur, and of course there's Paul Walker, who still hasn't managed to find a way to display more than one or two emotions as an actor. And neither of the two emotions in his repertoire fit with what his character is going through. For an actor with such limited ability, it's a struggle to find the heart of Walker's character. But his screen time is cut in half since he's sharing it with the dogs, and with what he has to work with, he should probably get some credit for trying. At least he doesn't say "bro."
Eight Below is an eye-catching adventure with eight striking, energetic, furry stars. The dogs are absolutely beautiful, and they outshine a lot of the little flaws (like Walker) plaguing their movie. Dave DiGilo's screenplay (adapted from a Japanese film) doesn't pull any punches, capably balancing the demands of realism and family-friendly entertainment. The movie's not afraid to hurt its audience. This being a Disney project, you can see the happy ending coming from a mile away. But when it comes, at least you feel you've earned it.