This is old school Disney fare, and what I mean by that is that this film is a nature adventure with the feel of the old Wide World of Disney productions. Except it is a far better film than the majority of those classics, from the acting to the production value.
Set in Antarctica (and based on the 1983 Japanese film Tale of Antarctica, which itself is based on true events in 1958), Eight Below is the tale of Jerry (Paul Walker) and his team of sled dogs. Stationed at a remote science center, Jerry is sent out for the last run of the season when Dr. McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) hires the team to assist him in tracking down a meteorite. Despite the trip being a severely bad idea (as the trail has not been scouted and the weather is slowly turning for the worst), the group sets out. Expectedly, the worst storm in years begins to set in, and the group barely makes it back to camp alive (and only because the sled dogs drag their a***s the final distance, as McClaren is completely incapacitated and Jerry has fallen unconscious). Once back to camp, the entire scientific center is evacuated due to the weather and the decreasing status of both Jerry and the doctor’s health. Well, the entire camp save the sled dogs, which are chained up outside as there is not enough room in the helicopters to bring them along. Jerry is assured, however, that they will come back for the dogs as soon they unload… and of course this never happens.
The film then goes almost entirely to the dogs, as we get to see how the animals survive (or in some cases, don’t) amid the harsh conditions of Antarctica without provided food or shelter. And this is where the true strength of the film is apparent, as these dogs are not only cute, they’re unbelievably intelligent. You don’t need cutesy voice over to understand that the lead dog just sent the pack (after a brief strategy session) to take out a bunch of seagulls, and then said pack won’t eat until the leader is presented with the kill. In fact, the dogs put on an acting clinic, conveying more through their eyes and motions than half the humans that act in films today. The dogs are so good, you never want them to be off-screen. But the film does stray from them, letting us know the status of Jerry’s attempts to get an expedition together to retrieve or, as time goes by, put to rest, his sled dog team.
The acting on the human side is actually rather good as well. Paul Walker spends much of his time brooding over his team, but understandably so. Dr. McClaren could have been a science-at-any-cost caricature, but his portrayal by Bruce Greenwood is one of warmth. For once, an audience can find sympathy for this type of character, and ultimately a form of redemption. Also in the film are Jason Biggs as a socially inept cartographer (straight-up comic relief) and Moon Bloodgood as a former Jerry flame and current helicopter pilot to the team. And to give credit where credit is due, newcomer Bloodgood takes the normally one-note romantic lead and fills it with a strength that is usually lacking. She’s not just a pretty foil, and she’s not always a hero. Not only do you feel a tinge of resentment for her when you realize that she can’t go back for the dogs, even though she promised Jerry she would, you also feel sympathetic and accept that it’s doing a number on her as well, but she has to do what she has to do. That she could bring that much subtext to this role is a proof that we can expect to see more from her in the future.
On a cautionary aside for all those parents that think Disney automatically equals “safe for the kids,” this film doesn’t pull many punches. Not all of the sled dogs make it out alive, and there is specifically a scene with a leopard seal that almost had me covering my eyes (and also caused many small children in the vicinity to simultaneously bust out in tears). This is, after all, a nature film (a great one at that), and you’ve been warned. Don’t bring the smaller kids unless you’re prepared to start explaining the concept of death to them (because “they just went to sleep” won’t cut it).
In the end, this is the first non-animated Disney film that I’ve seen in a long time that was a quality cinema experience. You feel for the dogs, you feel for the humans and you’re brought into the story and carried along without much difficulty. Considering this wasn’t aimed at my age group, I didn’t expect to find myself enjoying it as much as I did, and I was pleasantly surprised all-around. Could this be the beginning of a new era of excellence for Disney? We’ll see. It’s definitely a great start.