by Ed Symkus & r & & r & Eight Below & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he folks at Disney have done to this real-life story what they've done to so many fairy tales: They cleaned it up, softened its edges, made it more family-friendly. But that takes nothing away from this story about sled dogs in peril. It tells of eight of them who regularly spend half the year at an Antarctica research base, bringing people out to remote areas. In brief intros, the dogs' handler and best pal, Gerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) reveals the personalities of each dog to a scientist (Bruce Greenwood), whom he'll be guiding.
Things go wrong immediately, including the arrival of some very bad weather. Because of the size of a freak storm, everyone at the research base is ordered to leave, but there's no room for the dogs on the plane. The plane will come back for them, but the weather gets worse.
So starts this amazing tale of survival. Most of the dogs, which are chained up outdoors for their protection, manage to break free. In the original film, only two out of 15 dogs survive the harsh climate. Let's just say that in Disneyfying this version, the odds for these eight dogs work out a lot better.
One of the strongest assets of the film is the power of its visuals. Shot in Canada, Greenland and Norway, it explores the vastness of its outdoor settings while showing how small man and dogs are in the scheme of things. Shots combining black rocks, white snow and blue skies are real treats for the eye. It's too bad that the same can't be said for the ear. Veteran composer Mark Isham goes for bombast here, and the music keeps blaring through, ruining any mood of isolation.
Any acting plaudits go to the dogs (and their trainers) over the humans. These huskies really do exhibit a range of personality traits. But among the people -- who just seem to get in the way of the story -- Walker is the worst of the generally bad. Greenwood gives his standard competent performance. But there's not much beyond some nice smiling from Moon Bloodgood as a possible love interest for Walker; Jason Biggs overdoes his comedy relief bits as a cartographer; and then there's Walker, playing a guy who's supposedly torn apart because he's had to abandon his dogs. But all he can muster emotionally is some whining to his superiors about how unfair everything is. When he later tells people that he's gotten on with his life but can't stop thinking about the dogs, you have to wonder if he means his own or some greyhounds he might have bet on at the racetrack. And in the end, when there's reason for elation -- hey, it's a Disney film, it's got to have a happy ending -- Walker wears almost the same expression he had when he was miserable. Thank goodness there's more screen time devoted to the dogs than to him.
Some of this is sad; some of it may rankle animal behaviorists, who will insist that dogs don't act like this; some of it is terrifying. (Watch out for that whale carcass!) Nevertheless, and despite its flaws, this is an ideal film for family viewing. (Rated PG)