'Eight Below" is mostly set in Antarctica, where 30 below is more like it. But the title is a pun: The eight in question refers to a team of sled dogs left behind by a research team that is forced to evacuate because of an oncoming storm.
These dogs, shot in loving close-up, have names. There's Grumpy and Sneezy - no, wait a minute. There's Maya, Max, Shorty, Dewey, Truman, Shadow, Buck, and Old Jack. In some cases, they have more personality than the humans in this movie, and their dialogue, I mean their woofs, is often more eloquent.
We can be thankful at least that the director, Frank Marshall, didn't go all anthropomorphic on us. For all their star quality, these dogs remain dogs, not furry humans. So far as I can judge, no computer effects were used to enhance their dogginess, although an attack scene features a glaringly animatronic-looking leopard seal. The sudden appearance of this monster, emerging from the decaying carcass of a beached whale, is horrific and is likely to frighten small children. It certainly frightened this large adult.
"Eight Below" is "inspired by a true story," although most of the inspiration seems to have arrived second hand: Its source is the 1983 Japanese movie "Nanyoku Monogatari," - which I have not seen - about a team of skilled sled dogs who against all odds survive the frozen wilds.
The Hollywoodization - or to be more precise, the Disneyfication - of this story is not without its pleasures. (Once upon a time the Disney Studios made fine nature documentaries, like "The Living Desert," that opened up exotic worlds.) Paul Walker, who plays survival guide Gerry Shepherd, has a Kevin Costner-ish insouciance; it makes sense that he and the dogs get along since he seems part pooch himself. There is never any doubt that he will buck the authorities and return to the research station to rescue the mutts, whose struggle to survive takes up a large part of the screen time.
In some ways I wish it had taken up all of the screen time. The interaction between the dogs, some of whom have beautiful crystalline white coats, is far more fascinating than what goes on between the two-legged mammals, which is sometimes mushy (pun intended). Jason Biggs, from the "American Pie" movies, is on hand as a goofy cartographer, and he might as well have "Comic Relief" tattooed on his forehead. Bruce Greenwood, he of the granite jaw, gives a granitic performance as a research scientist with an Ahab-like quest to find a meteorite in the frozen wilds.
An actress named Moon Bloodgood, who started out as a hip-hop dancer and Laker Girl before getting into movie and TV work, plays a bush pilot and sometime girlfriend of Jerry's. The role is bland but that name is great.
The film, by the way, was shot not in Antarctica but in the much more mundane sounding town of Smithers, a high-altitude ski resort in Canada. Presumably the dogs got their own chairlifts. Grade: B-
• Rated PG for some peril and brief mild language.
Sex/Nudity: None. Violence: 6 scenes. Language: 2 mild expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 3 instances of drinking