After the agonizing spectacle of survival that was “March of the Penguins,” Frank Marshall’s “Eight Below” feels something like a dogand-pony show, minus the ponies.
It’s a thoroughly adorable movie — this tale of eight hearty sled dogs abandoned at a remote Antarctica research station — but nothing to howl about.
Even by Disney standards, the dramatic rigor here is sub-“Bambi.” Sun-ripened Paul Walker (“The Fast and the Furious”) plays Gerry Shepherd, an expedition guide at a National Science Research Foundation outpost who’s heartbroken when the team leaves behind his six Siberian huskies and two malamutes in the face of a fierce Antarctic snowstorm. And this after the dogs helped pull a wonky geologist (Bruce Greenwood) to safety after the nitwit slips into an ice hole. So much for gratitude.
While Gerry — unable to persuade the powers-that-be to stage a rescue flight — scrambles for a way to get back down to Antarctica, the dogs spend the winter fending for themselves. They bravely fight an animatronic sea lion over a whale carcass, care for their sick and wounded and display the sort of idealized human behavior that Disney traditionally demands from its four-legged employees. (And what of it? If a bunch of waddling waterfowl can make the Antarctic love connection, why not a family of furry canines?) What we don’t see is the promised snowstorm, or those pitiless, perpetual antarctic nights. Marshall (“Arachnophobia”) must not have left room in the budget.
Walker — who still looks like he should be spending his summers lifeguarding at the YMCA — might be miscast. As written by David DiGilio (who adapted his semi-truthful script from the Japanese film “Nankyoku Monogatari”), Gerry is a solitary soul, unmarried, who refers the dogs as his “kids.” It’s sweet but kind of pathetic. The character might have been more poignantly served with an older-looking actor — say, a Jason Lee — or at least one who doesn’t look like he could snap his fingers and score a swimsuit model.
Still, Walker fares better than “American Pie” alum Jason Biggs, playing Gerry’s brain-fryingly obnoxious sidekick. From the first frame, we’ve tagged this character as the film’s jibberjabber comic relief, and spend the rest of the movie wishing somebody would sick the dogs on him.