Eight Below

Feb 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

If you're not a dog person, you'll want to avoid Eight Below like the plague. Director Frank Marshall's new family-friendly adventure presents so many loving, adoring shots of its eight Antarctic sled dogs, it's almost nauseating: The adorable purebreds perform acts of impossible bravery; they cock their heads to one side to look curious; they nuzzle together to protect themselves from the elements; and they nudge their snouts at each other to show love. Lassie ain't got nothing on these bitches.

Unfortunately, the dogs are only half the story. The other half concerns the efforts of a few bland humans who — after having to leave behind the dogs in order to escape a brutal snowstorm — return to rescue the beloved pack. Marshall's film is smart enough to avoid cheesy good-guy-vs.-bad-guy conflicts, and the Hollywood veteran has the skill to pull off a couple of nail-biting action sequences. But as the movie crawls toward the two-hour mark, you might find yourself wishing he'd stick to his four-legged heroes and forget about the actors and dialogue altogether.

The movie opens in the southernmost reaches of Antarctica, where intrepid trail guide Jerry (Paul Walker) passes the time working as a guide for the National Science Foundation. Along with his cartographer buddy Cooper (Jason Biggs) and his pilot and semi-girlfriend Katie (Moon Bloodgood), Jerry leads scientists and geologists on tours of the coldest and most dangerous places on earth.

There's a lot of boredom between trips, when Jerry finds time to play cards and bond with his eight furry companions, each given a cutesy name by the film's screenwriters. (If that's not saccharine enough for you, there's a scene in which Jerry and his pals imitate one of those dogs-playing-poker paintings.) On one fateful outing, however, the dogs and their master help a naive UCLA researcher (Bruce Greenwood) reach a distant mountaintop, only to encounter a treacherous storm on the way home. After narrowly saving the life of the researcher, Jerry and the pack make it back to their home base just in time to be airlifted out of the area, humans first.

The rest of the film is split into two separate dramas: The wordless adventures of the eight dogs as they break loose of their chains and try to survive, and the momentum-sapping struggle of Jerry to get back to Antarctica to try to rescue them. The sequences are generally entertaining: They're not at the quality level of such animal adventures as Fly Away Home or The Black Stallion, but they're much better than Benji. There's no poetry to the images, but Marshall manages a few breathtaking, swooping shots of ice formations and snow-capped ridges.

Unfortunately, the bloated human drama knocks the movie off course. Walker, an actor best known for starring in movies featuring cars (The Fast and the Furious, Joy Ride), proves here that he has more charisma with man's best friend than he does with Vin Diesel. But when he's separated from his furry pals — lost and forlorn — the feeling extends over to the audience, in the worst possible way.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].