Penguins aren't the only creatures that can tell us a thing or two about sticking together and surviving in the harshest of climates. Eight Below tells the story of eight sled dogs who are stranded in the Antarctic, and the man who wants to rescue them. The movie is loosely based on the 1983 Japanese film Antarctica, which in turn was based on a true story, and it works best when it focuses on the dogs themselves: their trials, their triumphs, even their character arcs. The film is less successful when it focuses on the human characters.
Still, somebody had to get the dogs into their predicament—dogs aren't exactly indigenous to that part of the world—so the first part of the film shows how the dogs and humans work together as a team, before circumstances conspire to pull them apart.
Paul Walker plays Jerry Shepard, the research-base guide who takes visiting scientists to their various destinations on the frozen continent, and Bruce Greenwood plays Davis McLaren, an American geologist who hopes to be the first in his field to find pieces of a meteorite from the planet Mercury. Davis thinks he can find these fragments in the Antarctic, and it is Jerry's job to take him to the place where they might be found; but due to complications arising from the secrecy of Davis's mission, Jerry is forced to take certain risks—one of them being that he and Davis must make the journey by dog-sled, rather than by one of the more mechanical modes of transportation available at the base.
To the credit of first-time screenwriter David DiGilio, there is a bit of tension between Jerry and Davis, but no real conflict, as such. Davis is not the stereotypically selfish scientist who's willing to risk other people's lives for his own fame and fortune; instead, he's a family man who shows Jerry the picture his son drew for him, and if he gets so excited at times that he ignores the safety rules that Jerry has laid down, well, who can blame him. Jerry, for his part, is proud of his dogs and of the opportunity to show off the icy landscape that has become his home—and thus he becomes a tour guide not only to Davis, but to the audience as well. Every time he points out a hazard or gives tips on how to survive a life-threatening accident, it's like he's giving safety tips to the kids watching this film.
But accidents do happen, and to make things worse, a snowstorm heads their way, too. So when Jerry and Davis return to the base, they are not only in dire need of medical attention, they are also under orders to evacuate the base—and when Jerry wakes up a few days later, he discovers there was no room in the transports for the dogs.
If you've seen the trailer, then you might think this is where Jerry puts together a rescue mission to reunite with his beloved animals. But the story doesn't quite unfold like that. The movie branches off in two different directions, one following the dogs and the other following Jerry, who spends weeks and months hopping around from Washington, D.C. to California to Oregon, looking in vain for anybody who will fund a rescue mission before he finally gives up and takes a summer job teaching kids how to ride kayaks and canoes.
The real story is, of course, with the dogs, and for the most part, this section of the story is told with a refreshing documentary-like realism, as the eight canines struggle to find food, shelter and even just the will to survive. True, some of the creatures the dogs encounter, both as predators and prey, are pretty obviously CGI, but few in the film's young target audience would probably notice that. And true, there is perhaps an element of anthropomorphism here—particularly in the subplot about Max, the youngest and most impetuous of the dogs, who is disciplined by the pack leader for acting out of turn, and who eventually finds a way to redeem himself—but that quibble pales in light of the story's value as an age-appropriate lesson in maturity, respect, teamwork and sacrifice.
Most notably, the film allows for sad and serious moments in which, yes, death and injury take their toll. Eight Below isn't as potentially grim as, say, Alive, the 1993 film that was director Frank Marshall's previous foray into snowy survival stories—for one thing, there is no cannibalism this time around—but there are moments that could very well make children cry. And there is at least one good scare here that will make even adults jump.
The dogs are so endearing that it's always a bit of a letdown when the story returns to the human characters, who talk and talk about how they can't do anything, until finally it's time for the movie to end and—simply because the movie must bring these two threads back together—the humans all get a chance to do something after all. Marshall and DiGilio evidently felt it was necessary to give all the supporting characters, including a comic-relief cartographer played by Jason Biggs and a cute pilot played by Moon Bloodgood, their own personal narrative resolution. But by this point, all we care about is the dogs, and the human stuff just kind of gets in the way. It also pads the film out to a full two hours, which may not be quite as long as the dogs have to wait for their rescue, but it does feel like it.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- How do the dogs help each other to survive? How do they hurt their chances of survival? How does Max learn to do what it takes to help his fellow sled dogs survive?
- How would you describe Max, at different parts of the story? What can we learn from his example?
- What do you make of the scenes in which the dogs see shooting stars or the southern lights? Do you think dogs appreciate beauty?
- Jerry says he's not "disappointed" in Katie for leaving the dogs behind, he just thinks he should have "lowered his expectations." Is he being fair or unfair to her? Were his expectations too high? How do you think she deals with this, later on? Gracefully, or not?
- What does the film say about surviving in the world? Davis says, "You have to take chances for the things you care about." Do you agree? What sort of chances are acceptable? Davis takes chances for what he hopes will be a rock from space. Is that any different from taking chances to rescue a team of dogs? How should Jerry or Davis balance these things with the other things they care about, such as friends and children?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Eight Below is rated PG for some peril and brief mild language, including a couple of "hells." There are scenes of people falling through ice into crevasses or frozen water, and the dogs fight with a leopard seal over the carcass of a dead killer whale; the dogs also kill some birds for food. At least one of the dogs dies, so some of the children who see this film might need to discuss their feelings about death. Among the human characters, there is some discussion of on-and-off relationships, but it's all very chaste.
Photos © Copyright Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 02/23/06
So, your family enjoyed March of the Penguins. Will you be hurrying out to see the "March of the Sled Dogs" … otherwise known as Eight Below?
The film, inspired by true events, follows three scientists on an expedition in Antarctica who run into trouble and have to leave behind their sled dogs. As the fierce weather threatens to spoil their hopes of survival, the dogs persevere, and their story is winning cheers from dog-loving moviegoers.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) likes the dogs, and says the film is "good, but not good enough. … Certainly families could do a lot worse than Eight Below, and the fact that Hollywood is making movies like this at all is still somewhat encouraging. Even so, I hope that this new breed of family-friendly Hollywood fare eventually rises above its current threshold and begins to produce entertainment that is genuinely worth grown‑up viewers' time, whether or not they have kids in tow."
But his fellow Catholic film critic David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) disagrees, saying that "only the most frostbitten cynics will not have a lump in their throats during the heart-tugging, bittersweet climax. As warm as its setting is cold, this action-packed dog tale will leave moviegoers wagging theirs."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) cautions parents about "a few mild profanities" and "the ongoing depicted peril of the dogs and a series of intense encounters between the dogs and other Antarctic denizens." But while it's predictable, he says he was surprised by how it "pulled at my heartstrings." He concludes that it's "an engaging, emotional story about hope, friendship and, most of all, never giving up—no matter how cold it gets."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "Eight Below makes a good point—'You gotta take chances for the things you care about'—but its story structure and telling filter out too much adventure to make it truly memorable."
Lisa Rice (Crosswalk) says, "The movie is very safe and predictable. … Predictability and willing suspension of disbelief are forgivable, however, if there is an element of overriding tenderness.In the case of Eight Below, there certainly is. A sweet love story and charming comic relief draw the audience to forgive the corny predictability and drawn out sequences of dogs acting like selfless humans."
Mainstream critics rate this Disney adventure rather highly.from Film Forum, 03/02/06
"Eight Below is a fun film that will appeal to a wide range of demographics (although it's too intense for young kids)," says Andrew Coffin (World). "And those particularly fond of canines may find themselves surreptitiously sniffling and wiping away a stray tear at the film's final reunion."
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