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Disneyfication" is often used as a pejorative, and with good reason. At its worst, the suffocating layers of cutesiness result in disasters like Snow Dogs, Disney's 2002 sled racing farce with Cuba Gooding Jr. But Disney has also had success with live-action family adventures, like 1991's Jack London adaptation, White Fang, with Ethan Hawke.
Disney's latest live-action venture, Eight Below (rated PG for some peril and brief mild language) is yet another dogs-in-the-snow film that falls resoundingly in the latter category. A couple of mild profanities (as in "what the hell?") are all that mar this exciting, well-produced adventure.
Eight Below is based on a 1983 Japanese film called Nankyoku Monogatari (or Antarctica), which was itself based on a true story of sled dogs left to survive on their own when their handlers were evacuated from the icy continent in 1957. As expected, the Disney version gets the Disney treatment (among other changes, more of the dogs survive than in the historical account) but the tale is handled with enough subtlety and solid, straightforward storytelling to remain a thrilling adventure.
Paul Walker plays Gerry Shepherd, a wilderness guide stationed at a remote Antarctic scientific outpost. With winter imminent, Gerry makes his last run of the season at the request of meteor-hunting geologist Davis McLaren (Bruce Greenwood). Word of a fast-moving storm forces Gerry and Davis to scramble back to base camp and then evacuate completely-leaving Gerry's beloved sled dog team, eight in all, behind.
The film then splits in two, as the dogs break free from their chains and strike off in search of food while Gerry, back in the United States, hunts in vain for a way back to Antarctica to rescue his team.
Much of Eight Below is predictable, but director Frank Marshall effectively builds suspense and a rooting interest in the dogs' struggle for survival. The animals are surprisingly free from anthropomorphization-to such a realistic extent that it's often difficult to tell which of them, or even how many of them, are still alive as the story progresses. The human story is less effective, but still not heavy-handed or overly contrived.
Eight Below is a fun film that will appeal to a wide range of demographics (although it's too intense for young kids). And those particularly fond of canines may find themselves surreptitiously sniffling and wiping away a stray tear at the film's final reunion.