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Eight Below

Imagine if Jack London had written a "Lassie" episode. That how Eight Below (2006) feels. Director Frank Marshall's handsome, story-light, and surprisingly harsh all-ages adventure concerns a team of researchers at an Antarctic research station forced to abandon their sled dogs in the frozen wild. For six months. Marshall initially leads us to believe the movie's about the humans. This is worrisome, given that two of those humans are Paul Walker as a sled-dog guide and Jason Biggs as a wacky cartographer. Nevertheless, as Walker takes a scientist (Bruce Greenwood) on an ill-advised trip to hunt for space rocks in the snow, the photography's gorgeous and the suspense compels. Marshall gives the actors a mildly tense dynamic (Greenwood wants grants and glory; Walker wants to return to base). He clearly outlines the hazards (thin ice, glacier cracks, and vicious leopard seals that look and act like they swam over from Mordor). And Marshall does a nicely succinct job outlining the dynamics of a dog team. As a couple of nasty weather systems roll in, it even seems that we might be in for that rarest of rarities — a well-made thriller for children. So it's a little disappointing when everyone returns to base after a painful-looking incident involving hypothermia, frostbite, and a broken leg, the dogs get left behind as the staff races ahead of the weather to a hospital — and all the tension and plausibility leak out of the movie. Walker flies around the country, pausing only to flirt with an insanely hot bush pilot (Moon Bloodgood), and he tries to get someone, anyone, to fund a rescue operation — an operation that devolves, after time and hope are lost, into the world's most expensive memorial service. Meanwhile, Marshall heaps endless, merciless peril on the dogs — who prove themselves Olivier-grade canine thespians as they run around with dead seagulls in their mouths, chase the Northern Lights, grieve the fallen, and craft elaborate diversionary tactics to lure a leopard seal away from a rotting whale corpse.But because there's no real race against time — the dogs have long since been left for dead — the movie loses its initial and well-earned urgency. Instead, we're left with a longish, perfectly decent, not-too-insulting kids' movie that will probably delight the more dog-obsessed in the Garanimals set. But for a little while, it was a little more than that. Buena Vista's DVD release of Eight Below offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Director Frank Marshall and producer Pat Crowley can be heard on the first commentary track, while the second includes Marshall with star Paul Walker and director of photography Don Burgess. Also on hand is the featurette "Running with the Dogs: The Making of Eight Below" (10 min.) as well as five deleted scenes with a "play all" option. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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