Eight Below (PG)
Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
The latest movie to be "inspired by true events," it turns out, actually was inspired by another movie, Nankyoku Monogatari (known, kinda, in the United States as Antarctica). It beat Eight Below to the real-life punch by a good 23 years.
That film was the story of a '50s South Pole research team that was forced to leave behind its eight highly trained huskies in the face of a nasty storm and an airplane at full capacity. They think they'll be able to come right back for the dogs. They're wrong, and they end up making the return trip some six months later. That the dogs demonstrate more acting ability than Paul Walker is, presumably, an innovation in the new version.
Still, Eight Below is pretty amazing. You'll marvel at the dogs, sure, but you'll also be astonished that Mr. 2 Fast 2 Furious continues to get lead roles. Here, Walker, er, walks through the part of Jerry, an Antarctic "survival guide" who, against his better, blue-eyed judgment, obeys an order to escort scientist Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) on a trip twice as far as the one Jerry already has planned.
The stability of the ice is uncertain, McClaren has packed a ton of crap, and even if they take the dogs instead of a heavier, speedier mode of transportation, the journey is One Big Risk.
But the dogs "absolutely love their work," according to their master, and though screenwriter David DiGilio laces the expedition with the expected gasp-inducing moments, the two humans make it back battered, but still breathing.
Then that nasty storm starts bearing down, and it becomes harder to understand why Disney is promoting this as another animal adventure for the kiddies who'll no doubt wonder why the pups have to be tightly chained and left behind, while Jason Biggs (playing Cooper, Jerry's best friend) gets to fly to safety.
Director Frank Marshall makes Jerry and McClaren's trip quick-moving and riveting, but you may as well tune out when the movie starts cutting back and forth between the humans, safely back in America, and the dogs, left to fend for themselves in increasingly perilous conditions. It's the actors that make life on this continent a snooze, but DiGilio's story line helps, too.
At the same time and as silly as it may sound the dogs are unbelievable. Like March of the Penguins, Eight Below seems designed to prove that even very adorable animals can have very remarkable instincts. And like Penguins director Luc Jacquet, Marshall isn't above appealing to filmgoers' own instinct to anthropomorphize to make his case.
The dogs' leader tries to rouse the tired and comforts the injured, and the newest member of the team, though dopey-looking, ends up being the most calculating. The dogs react convincingly to one another, as well as to anything new that shows up in their blank habitat (which is actually Canada and Greenland), and it's all seamless. After a while, you'll want the people to come back just so the dogs will have something new to interact with.
That happens, of course, and the research team's return trip is, of course, unnecessarily protracted. But it's worth it just to see the reaction of the pups.