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Sled dogs steal ‘Eight Below’

Movie harks back to old-fashioned live-action Disney flicks
Still photographs of \"Eight Below\", Paul Walker (I)
Still photographs of \"Eight Below\", Paul Walker (I)Disney

A box-office record-breaker in Japan in the mid-1980s, the Antarctica nature epic, “Nankyoku Monogatari,” never caught on in the United States.

But Disney has belatedly come to the rescue with an engaging, thoroughly Americanized remake called “Eight Below.” Both films are based on a late-1950s incident involving an expedition that was forced to abandon its sled dogs during a harsh storm.

In the new film, Paul Walker plays the dogs’ most devoted pal: an Antarctica guide who can’t stop worrying about their fate when he’s sent back to the U.S. He and the dogs have saved the life of a geologist (Bruce Greenwood) who’s been looking for a meteorite, but winter’s coming, escape scenarios are limited, and the dogs are left to fend for themselves. 

Greenwood, Walker’s best friend (Jason Biggs) and Walker’s ex-girlfriend (Moon Bloodgood) all try to help him let go. He persists in moping about in a deep funk in Pasadena, Washington D.C., and while teaching nine-year-olds to maneuver in kayaks. Meanwhile, the dogs have broken free of their harnesses and learned to survive, mostly by hunting birds and munching on the carcasses of large sea creatures.

Much less maudlin than the 1983 original, “Eight Below” makes use of digital effects, stunt experts, puppeteers and more dog trainers than actors (much of the film was shot in Norway and Canada). The result is a nearly seamless vision of animal/human interaction, with more than a few anthropomorphic touches that recall “The Incredible Journey” and other Disney nature films.

The director, Frank Marshall, knows something about survival dramas, having previously made “Alive,” the 1993 drama about an Andes plane crash. He expertly builds suspense from the simplest elements — cracking ice, hidden crevasses, nervous fliers, the arrival of a pair of leopard seals, the threat of frostbite and amputation — and he’s not above a horror-movie shocker touch or two.

If you don’t jump out of your seat during one episode late in the film, as one of the dogs is looking for food, you’re probably asleep. Marshall often seems to revel in emphasizing the less soothing aspects of nature.

He’s less secure with the actors, partly because the script presents them with so little to do. The relationships between the characters almost never get in the way, but they’re not really worth the screen time they’re given either. The Walker/Bloodgood romance is off-again, on-again, and in the end it barely matters.

One scene between Walker and Greenwood promises more. Walker’s character has concerns about the safety of the expedition to find the meteorite, but he caves in to please everyone else. Bad decision, as it turns out.

“If you didn’t think it was safe,” Greenwood points out, “you shouldn’t have backed down.” Unfortunately, the tension is relieved almost immediately, and the cautionary note is forgotten.

It’s too bad the human element is so marginal here. But, like Walker’s character, the movie is clearly in love with the dogs. They have distinct personalities and ways of relating, and always manage to hijack their scenes.