Whenever I watch a nature movie, as I root for the protagonists to eat any other living creature that flies or waddles along, I know that I would feel different if the movie were told from the perspective of the prey. During Eight Below (Walt Disney Pictures), there I was hoping the sled dogs would decimate Antarctica's native fauna and rip to shreds its fowl. (Or all fowl except penguins—the filmmakers wisely realized they would lose their audience if the dogs ate the stars of March of the Penguins.) Of course, in a seal or bird movie, these dogs would be vicious interlopers, stand-ins for corrupt humanity.
Eight Below, the No. 1 movie in the country this week, is the Disney story of a team of sled dogs abandoned for six months to the Antarctic winter when their master and a visiting scientist are injured and must be evacuated before the arrival of an epic storm. It is based on a real Japanese expedition in 1957, which was made into a 1983 Japanese movie. It turns out that what happens in real life when dogs are abandoned in Antarctica is that most of them die. When the Japanese explorers returned, they found that seven of the nine had perished. (The Japanese filmmakers upped the mortality and melancholy by portraying two survivors out of a team of 15.)
I took my 10-year-old daughter and her 9-year-old friend Michaela, and for all of us the movie was painless (this is a compliment). I was relieved it was free of the self-referential show-business patter that infects so many of Disney's animated movies. But both girls so completely understood the conflict between Disney movie conventions and reality that they found Eight Below easy to resist. "It was too much of a medical miracle," said my daughter. "The dogs wouldn't have survived on sea gulls for 180 days." Michaela said that while she knew some of the dogs would die, "I knew more would live or else it would be too depressing. But I didn't cry because I thought if I'm weak for this movie I'll need 70 million tissues."
One thing a movie set in ice and snow should give you is the feeling that if you sighed in the theater you would see your breath. The cold was an insinuating presence in both March of the Penguins and Touching the Void. But it seems only intermittently chilly in Eight Below. And instead of experiencing snow blindness, you are more likely to feel blinded by the white teeth of the leading men, Paul Walker as Jerry, and the sled dog D.J. as Max. Both also have startling aquamarine eyes (although D.J. manages to be more expressive with his) and dark-eyed beauties as love interests. The human and canine romances are portrayed with such plodding parallelism that my daughter leaned over and said, "Jerry and Katie are like Max and Maya." Of the long, long-awaited kiss between the humans, my daughter was resigned. "It was going to happen. It had to."
After the humans leave Antarctica, the movie bifurcates into the silent, engrossing story of the dogs' struggle, and the dreary, repetitive attempts by Jerry to get to them. Eight Below runs two hours and would have benefited from losing 30 minutes of that—all of it from Jerry's protracted quest. The other human actors are simply types. When Bruce Greenwood shows up, as the scientist looking for a meteorite, his boyish cragginess screams egomaniac. Jason Biggs, as the cartographer Charlie, has a distracting hairdo that looks like a Beatles wig circa 1963. He was leading man material in the American Pie series, but here he is a throwback, the ethnic pal exuding shtick. Then there is August Schellenberg as Mindo, the ponytailed Native American who speaks in Disney Indian epigrams: "Finding what's important is finding that one thing that will truly put your heart at rest."
The best scenes were of the dogs' growing realization that the meals provided by Jerry had been an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations. Stripped of his disempowering handouts, they become fully functioning members of the ownership society. The dogs learn to fight for themselves and eventually tangle with a (computer-generated) leopard seal in the movie's most thrilling encounter. (Although, did the seal have to be such a grotesque monster? Let's face it, the seals were there first.)
The girls were impressed by, but slightly skeptical of, the idealized portrayal of the starving sled dogs selflessly sharing food. Michaela observed of her two bichon havanese, "If they found one bird they both would be saying, 'Mine!' " And as Roger Ebert has pointed out, director Frank Marshall also directed Alive, the movie in which a Uruguayan rugby team, stranded in the snow of the Andes after a plane crash, resorts to eating their dead teammates to survive. But rugby is a dog-eat-dog sport; in Eight Below the sled dogs' sensibilities are more refined.