‘Eight Below’ is an action-packed tale of canine survival | TahoeDailyTribune.com

‘Eight Below’ is an action-packed tale of canine survival

Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) is forced to leave his team of sled dogs behind to fend for survival in "Eight Below."

Any time you involve the household pets in a situation that leaves them defenseless, the emotions quickly take over. When it comes to dogs that are both loyal and cute, Disney is usually your best bet to pull at the old heartstrings. They do a pretty good job, too.

In “Eight Below,” eight sled dogs are trapped in Antarctica’s freezing conditions (hence the title, based on a true story) and are left behind; the dogs are the real stars, while the humans pretty much provide the dialogue.

The dogs actually could have been given more screen time, because when the scenes switched from the beloved canines to the human element, I was disappointed! Oh, the actors are fine and all, but wouldn’t you rather see the dogs implement a plan of survival before the human element arrives? Something about animals being smarter than humans … well, we underestimate their capabilities sometimes and can learn from our four-legged companions.

In an era where good family films are tough to come by at times, “Eight Below” fills a much-needed void out there, where the whole family can watch together without the worry of bad words or naked characters. Having seen so many motion pictures, I wonder sometimes when special effects became more important than a good, solid story.

Director Frank Marshall (at one time a prodigy of Steven Spielberg), who last directed “Congo” (1995), paints an extreme picture of harshness in the frozen underworld of Antarctica. Marshall has produced numerous motion pictures that have been highly successful (“Seabiscuit,” “The Bourne Identity,” “The Sixth Sense,” among countless others), and does a pretty good job in the director’s seat here. In other words, the build-up is pretty convincing as to what the plot will play out to be.

When the filmmakers say “based on a true story,” there’s quite a bit of leeway here. The screenplay, by Dave DiGilio, was “inspired” by the Japanese Nippon feature movie “Nankyoku Monogatari” (“Antarctica”) from 1983, written by Toshirô Ishido. That version takes place in 1958 with two humans, nine dogs and a not-so-happy outcome. This flick is updated, taking place in the ’90s, with one main human character involved and a much happier ending for man’s best friend. I mean, it is a Disney movie, after all.

Be forewarned, though: There are some scary scenes here, so be prepared for a few jolts that may have you leaping out of your seats. A few scenes might be too intense for the younger set, so keep that in mind.

With regard to the human element, I thought Jason Biggs (“American Pie” series) was pretty humorous. Here he plays the comic relief-type of character, Charlie Cooper, cartographer to Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), who’s the resident guide at the U.S. National Science Research Base in Antarctica. And there’s always the “heavy,” who is on a deadline – this case being the pushy academic professor, Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood). He just has to be the first to discover those rare artifacts, you know?

And, oh, yeah, let’s not forget the requisite romantic element as a sidebar between the humans, in this case involving site pilot Katie (Moon Bloodgood). I imagine this is to be expected, I guess, to keep our interest piqued, but it still comes back to the survival of the dogs.

The roles are set up pretty much so you know who has the real heart in the picture, and who acts on what others dismiss as not prioritizing the practical. That’s why I liked the dogs, because they were always on the same page and didn’t wait for a memo on what to do, or organize a meeting like we humans do, bogging everything down in red tape. I’m betting that because our love of dogs here is so apparent, this movie will play well in the Lake Tahoe vicinity.

– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada, including the Sirius Radio Network every Sunday evening. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8 and weekends on KMTN television here in South Lake Tahoe.

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