random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Monday, March 20, 2006

REEL REVIEW: Eight Below (2006) ***

Eight Below (2006)

written by: David DiGilio
(inspired by the screenplay for the Japanese film 'Nankyoku Monogatari' or 'Antarctica' as it was named in the U.S release. 'Eight Below' is the fictional re-interpretation of the true events of the 1958 Japanese expedition).
produced by: Patrick Crowley, Doug Davison, & David Hoberman
directed by: Frank Marshall

How can you not like this movie? Okay, I know. Not a very objective way to start a movie review. But, just about any movie that is about the Arctic or Antarctic should be appealing to everybody. Why? Cuz it's about a place that most people have never traveled to. We're talkin' South Pole people! A truly incredible place to be much less survive in as we all saw in last summer's Oscar "March of the Penguins." Everything about this environment is amazing, intriguing, and dangerous.

I'm sure many people see the poster or commercials for a movie like this, see it's Disney and immediately discount it. Part of that is Disney's fault because at the same time in theatre number 6 in the same multiplex you'll find Disney's "The Shaggy Dog", how pathetic.

Alas, that's another blog. The other fault lies in the moviegoer that sees this as just some kiddie flick. When I first saw the trailer for this last fall, it really had me. I wanted to see this. It looked dramatic and exciting....and indeed it was.

Dr. Davis McLaren (Bruce Greenwood) has come around the world to the most isolated place on Earth - Antarctica - to investigate a meteorite. To do so he's going to need professional Antarctic guide Jerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) and his crack team of sled dogs to get him across the ice. But when dumb McLaren is hurt in an accident, he and the rest of the field team must be evacuated, leaving the dogs to fend for themselves until the weather clears and they can be rescued.

Sure, at first sight it looks like it may be a fun but slightly sappy man-and-his-dogs story, yet "Eight Below" quickly evolves into a well-crafted wilderness adventure reminiscent of Disney's heyday as the dogs roam the naked Antarctic wastes, trying to survive. "Eight Below" moves back and forth between the dogs plight and the lives of the human survivors back in the States, particularly Shepherd, wracked with guilt for leaving them behind.

The sled dogs in Walt Disney Pictures' Eight Below

And that's where the real strength and enjoyment of the movie lies, with the dogs. Their journey is compelling and heartfelt whether its, hunting for food, playing with the Borealis, and in one particularly exciting sequence, fighting with a hungry sea leopard over food. It covers quite a bit of familiar ground, but it does so very well. It works best by focusing on the dogs, all eight of them (hence the title). There's dumb but hard-working, red-headed Buck, the twins Dewey & Truman, the maternal Alpha leader Maya, young Max, poker-playing Old Jack, silver-maned Shadow, and rebellious Shorty. They're all adorable and convey a wide range of emotion. Yes animals, especially dogs, feel and show emotions such as loyalty, anxiety, affection, hunger, and anger.

Shepherd never stops thinking about them, but there's not much he can do. He visits McClaren, whose research financed the dogsled expedition, and he hangs out at his mobile home on a scenic Oregon coast, and he pursues a reawakening love affair with Katie (Moon Bloodgood), the pilot who ferried them to and from the station. To give him credit, he's depressed & brokenhearted, by the thought of those dogs chained up in the frigid night, but what can he do? Meanwhile, the subtitles keep count of how long the dogs have been on their own which is from sometime in January to sometime in July. Yeah.

The movie may seem kinda long for what is given but I think it adds to the feeling if the dogs long endurance. It gets a bit sappy towards the end as earnest movies often tend to do and as this movie should. It's emotional, I shed a tear or two but then again I cry every time I watch E.T. The trip is worth it though, creating a fine piece of wilderness adventure, a genre I grew up with and has languished in recent years.

Could the dogs (six huskies and two malamutes) really have survived unsheltered for five months, scavenging for themselves through an Antarctic winter? I learned from imbd that "Eight Below" is inspired by a Japanese film, itself based on real events, but in the 1958 "true story," seven of nine dogs died. Still, the film doesn't claim to be a documentary, and the story, believable or not, is strong and involving. It's the stuff about the humans that gets a lil thin but I can deal with it because the dogs really pull the movie. Pum intended. However, when Shephard appeals to Dr. McClaren, one would think he'd exert himself a little more to save the dogs, since they saved his life. (How he gets into trouble and what the dogs do to save him I will leave for you to experience; it provides the film's most compelling moments.)

I've heard a lotta people scoff at the acting abilities of Paul Walker. Maybe they see him as just another pretty boy. From the interviews I've read with him and from what acting I've seen him in....I like him. Sure, he's a hunk but he strikes me as one of those guys that other guys would like to kick it with while the girls would like to just stare into his blues eyes. I'm looking forward to see what he could do under the direction of Clint Eastwood later this year in "Flags of Our Fathers."

Director Frank Marshall is mostly well-known for his decades as a producer. He's worked on many memorable hits such as the Indiana Jones & the Back to the Future trilogies as well as the recent Jason Bourne movies with Matt Damon. When I heard he directed this it locked me in. I trust him and he did not let me down at all. Cinematographer Don Burgess did a beautiful job with the overall look. The music by the always great Mark Isham is quite noticeable mainly cuz in the scenes with just the dogs there's no talking. Just three who made this movie seem so much more than another sad, tired Disney remake. This movie succeeds on another level as well. Those of you, like my wife, who aren't "dog people," will find as much pleasure in this movie as those (like myself) who are. When we got out of our seats my wife said to me, "I want one."

"Eight Below" breakdown
In the Future with Paul Walker
interview with Frank Marshall about his various projects

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