Eight Below **1/2Sasha StoneMirror film criticWhat seemed like a straight-to-video Disney tween movie, Eight Below proved to be a big draw at the weekend’s box office, coming in solidly in the first place. Was it Paul Walker’s mug on the billboards? Was it those cute dogs? Did word of mouth spread lightning-fast? Or was there just nothing else to see this weekend with your kids?If American movie moguls want to make money, all they have to do is make sure a new kids’ movie opens every weekend. It doesn’t have to be good, just new. Thankfully, Eight Below is not nearly as bad as you’d think. Directed by mega-producer Frank Marshall, and based on a true story (it would have to be; no one could have made this up), Eight Below is the story of a man’s devotion to his team of snow dogs and the lengths he must go to try to save them.Played by the painfully cute Paul Walker (that Jimmy Stewart nose, that Brad Pitt grin, those abs, oh my!) Gerry Shepard is part of a team that must take soon-to-be-world-famous scientist (Bruce Greenwood slumming it) on a dog sled journey to find a geological artifact, one worth risking life and limb for. Although Shepard and his team of dogs are good on the ice, the scientist isn’t and before long, he’s stumbled into a dangerous situation that exposes the ugly fact that “it takes a lot longer to freeze to death than it does to drown.’ But the scientist is lucky because those dogs are truly adept, especially one called Maya who saves the scientist’s life. Upon returning to camp, both Shepard and the scientist are nearly disabled from frostbite. Thus the ensuing drama. “We have to get them back to civilization!” But there isn’t enough room on the plane! We have to leave the dogs!They have to leave the dogs behind. At first, Shepard thinks maybe his pilot and cutie pie love interest, Katie (Moon Bloodgood) is going to fly back and get the dogs, but at some point it dawns on him and everyone else that the worst is going to happen – the dogs will be left to starve or freeze to death while chained up. Could it be more gruesome? Yeah, they’re just getting started. If you think that it will freak out your child, just wait until the true horror of survival rears its ugly head. Indeed, the poor dogs will eventually break free from their chains and have to survive as wild dogs, killing whatever they can.Meanwhile, gorp-eating, Patagonia-wearing Shepard returns to civilization only to find an indifferent group of people in power who keep telling him no, you can’t go back and get the dogs. In fact, the dogs are probably dead by now. What’s the point? But Shepard believes, with a little help of a spiritual sort, that he must do what he must do. The dogs are really the best thing about Eight Below, and are far better actors than the humans. They’re so cute, in fact, that it makes up for the rigid dialogue and super bad acting of Walker and Greenwood. Jason Biggs plays the kooky sidekick with all of the subtlety of shattering glass. The dogs’ survival is going to be hard core for kids who are used to non-sad Disney films that never challenge them with reality. You mean dogs die? Not only do they die, but you get to cradle your wailing child in your arms while one of the other dogs tries to “wake up” the dead dog. Yeah, be prepared for lots of sniffling, even among adults.Where the film’s first half drags, its second half skips along and, eventually, the film becomes a thrill to behold – not just because of the adorable mutts and their funny little stares but because the story itself is a worthy one; dogs are more loyal and kind to humans and to each other than humans are. Now only if Paul Walker would keep his mouth shut and look pretty, it would be a perfect world.
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