Must Love Huskies (Film Review: “Eight Below”)

Fans of Norma’s Streaming Picks may be surprised to see me recommend a film starring Paul Walker, as it’s evidently clear by now that I’m not a consumer of the Fast & The Furious franchise. But when I heard about his tragic death last week, I was reminded of a wonderful Disney picture from 2006, Eight Below, in which he delivered a solid, honest performance and which should be considered a Modern Family Classic.  Inspired by a true story (and film entitled Nankyoku Monogatari) about a doomed 1958 Japanese scientific expedition at the South Pole which resulted in the abandonment of 15 sled dogs, director Frank Marshall refurbished the story in a contemporary context for an American audience, to great effect.

SnapShot Plot

Paul Walker plays arctic guide Jerry Shepard (OK, so his name is obviously symbolic…just let it go!) whose deepest bonds are with his eight hard-working, loyal and smart sled dogs.  He’s basically a loner, even though he’s surrounded by a great team who love him, including his wacky pal Cooper (in an amusing turn by Jason Biggs) and Katie the snow pilot (played by natural beauty Moon Bloodgood.)  They are attached to a National Science Foundation research project in the Antarctic, and it’s a surprise when leading geologist Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) flies in with an urgent mission to find a meteorite in a treacherous terrain called Mt. Melbourne.  Against Jerry’s better instincts, he and his dogs take McClaren by sled, even though it’s late in the season and they should have all gotten out before the serious weather is due to hit.  A near fatal accident happens in which, were it not for the dogs themselves, the good doctor would have perished.  And that is something he’ll never forget.  But because of the critical need for immediate medical evacuation, there’s not enough room for the dogs.  With a very heavy heart, Jerry begrudgingly agrees to leave them behind, thinking (and promising them) he’ll return within the week to get them.  Of course it’s the storm of the century and what follows is a harrowing and heart-wrenching experience for guilt-ridden Jerry (stateside) and the eight dogs left behind to fend for themselves against impossible odds in a landscape that just couldn’t be any bleaker.

Parting Shot

What could have been a heavy-handed, sentimentalized mess is instead – in the restrained hands of director, Marshall and writer, David DiGilio – a great action-adventure tale which evokes comparison to the legend himself, Jack London and his American masterpiece, The Call of the Wild. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the hero of the dog pack is named Jack? Stirring music by Mark Isham ratchets up the emotion, as well as a graphic which appears every now and then on the bottom of the screen, ticking off the number of days the dogs have been on their own. The action is split down the middle, between Jerry’s increasingly frantic efforts to find a way back to the dogs, and the challenges and adventures the dogs themselves are experiencing in real time.  Every time I saw it, my heart sank as I imagined their chances of survival becoming increasingly remote.

Eight Below is a perfect film to enjoy during the holidays, when we welcome stories about loyalty, family, heroism and bravery….. without cynicism.  That, coupled with breathtaking scenery, amazing action and the camaraderie of good friends (with and without four legs) and you’ve got a real winner! Mush!

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