"Eight Below"

Warning: Puppy lovers may take a cold view of this Disney movie about an Antarctic guide and his pack of loyal sled dogs.

Published February 17, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

I suspect that dog lovers everywhere are curious about "Eight Below," the new Disney movie about the relationship between an Antarctic guide (played by Paul Walker) and his brave, loyal and heart-stoppingly beautiful pack of sled dogs. The dogs, hardy creatures whose thick coats allow them to sleep comfortably outdoors even in temperatures well below zero, perform their job dutifully and cheerfully. As Walker explains to Bruce Greenwood, who plays a geologist who has come to the Antarctic looking for some dumb rock, the dogs will literally run themselves to death if you don't tell them to stop: They live for their work.

And in the first third of the movie, director Frank Marshall and cinematographer Don Burgess clue us in to the pleasure and pride these dogs take in their livelihood: Harnessed to their sled, their tails aloft like heraldic flags, they bound through the snow with such intense concentration that you can't help being exhilarated, and moved, by them.

But as I probably don't need to tell you, bad stuff happens. And while "Eight Below" -- which was inspired by a true story, and is loosely based on the 1983 Japanese picture "Nankyoku Monogatari" -- isn't as disturbing or as cheaply manipulative as it might have been, its problems continued to paw at me long after I'd left the theater. This is one of those lazy, lukewarm pictures that's even more disappointing than a purely bad one, and for one glaring reason: How could Marshall, his writers, and even his actors have let these dogs down so badly?

The pack's trouble begins when Greenwood, like a dork, falls through the ice. The head sled dog, Maya (she's played by an actor dog named Koda Bear, who's marvelous), saves his life by carefully following the instructions Walker gives her. (She inches toward Greenwood over perilously fragile ice with a rope in her mouth, and manages to drop it neatly around his torso so he can be pulled to safety.) But Greenwood, in addition to suffering hypothermia, has broken his leg. He and Walker are far from the base camp, and the dogs run like hell -- through a major storm, no less -- to get them back. Once they arrive, it's decided that the whole human team (which also includes a cartographer played by Jason Biggs) must be airlifted out of the camp immediately. Worse weather is headed their way, plus, there's a risk Greenwood could lose his stupid old leg. The team's attractive pilot (played by Moon Bloodgood) promises -- famous last words -- that after she's brought all the humans to safety, she'll return immediately for the dogs.

What follows are many, many scenes of Walker looking vaguely discomfited, as if he'd forgotten where he'd parked the Volvo (my understanding is that this virtually unreadable expression is supposed to approximate grief), interwoven with scenes of the dogs -- left on their own for days that turn into months -- fending for themselves in the brutal Antarctic winter. Those who are extremely spoiler-sensitive may wish to stop reading here. But others may want to know that two of the dogs don't survive, and to Marshall's credit, their deaths are handled with a fair amount of sensitivity.

Even so, the movie spends far too much time focusing on Walker, to the point where I wanted to yell at the screen. We see Walker ambling -- none too fast, mind you -- through the streets of Washington, on his way to meet with some government flunkies who might be willing to help him rescue his dogs. When they say no, he shambles off to Pasadena, Calif., to ask Greenwood (whose life was saved by these very dogs, thank you very much) for help. Greenwood, the creep, just shakes his head sadly, saying, in essence, "Fuhgeddaboutit." Sullenly, Walker heads out to his trailer in Oregon, where he sits around for a long time, staring at nature and moping. Meanwhile, we watch the dogs braving truly frightening leopard seals, desperately pouncing on seagulls so they can pull the meager scraps of meat off their bones, and, basically, waiting for their master to return, because that's what dogs do.

Just get the damn dogs, already! But no: We need more scenes of Walker giving kayak lessons to little kids, his eyes glazed with alleged sorrow. There's even an inane subplot involving Biggs and a possibly imaginary Italian scientist girlfriend -- we're supposed to find this amusing, even as we know how hard the dogs are working just to survive. This isn't dramatic suspense; it's torture.

Even though there's no single sequence in "Eight Below" as troubling as the dead-chick stuff in "March of the Penguins," I wouldn't bring a very small child to see it. I wouldn't bring a very large child to see it, either -- in fact, I wish I hadn't seen it myself, not because the plight of the dogs is necessarily badly handled, but because I found the behavior of the human beings nearly unbearable. The eight dogs in this picture are played by fine animal actors, and they benefit from being allowed to simply act like dogs -- they aren't required to perform any cute, pandering routines. But two days after seeing this picture, I'm still haunted by the faces of these dogs. I'm sure, on the set, they were treated with great kindness and respect. But I don't know how you screw up a movie like "Eight Below" with faces like these to work with: The dogs' alert, expressive eyes show more feeling in a single blink than we get in Walker's whole faux-tortured performance. These dogs deserve so much better than "Eight Below." They shouldn't have to put up with all these stupid human tricks.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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