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— Pierce Brosnan, Tomorrow Never Dies

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An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

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“Inspired by a True Story,” Eight Below tells of 8 sled dogs left in Antarctica for a winter. It’s a feel-good movie that gets a lot of things wrong. But, as my wife said, if I were 10, I would love this movie.

There are humans in the movie, too. Paul Walker and Moon Bloodgood play the former couple thinking about reuniting. He’s the outfitter; she’s the pilot. There’s a trusty sidekick (Jason Biggs), the go-to man for a quick chuckle. And then there’s Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), the scientist whose work allows the other three to do what they do.

The dogs’ story was told more faithfully in the 1983 Japanese film called Antarctica (AKA Nankyuko Monogatari, not to be confused with the IMAX film called Antarctica, footage from which appears in Eight Below.) What really happened to the dogs can never be known, but it is true that the dogs were part of a Japanese expedition in the 1950s, and the number of dogs who actually survived a winter in the harshest place on earth is not what you’ll see in this movie. Eight Below has been Disneyfied.

Speaking of Disneyfied, I was disappointed at how anthropomorphized the dogs were. In one scene, the dogs practically speak to each other to plan a pincer move on some flocking birds. In another, a dog belly-crawls over some thin ice. When we see these dogs do tricks, it makes the “true” story seem less and less true. I tend to think that people already like dogs; they don’t need to be anthropomorphized for us to like them. A story of survival in Antarctica is dramatic enough.

Nevertheless, I’ll concede Eight Below is a fair bit of entertainment. Paul Walker is still “a chunk of green wood,” as another Movie Habit critic once said. But his affection for the dogs seems genuine, and their story is an easy one to get caught up in.

DVD Extras

People already like dogs; they don't need to be anthropomorphized
People already like dogs; they don’t need to be anthropomorphized

We get a lot of readers looking for the original Antarctica on Movie Habit. I had hoped that the release of Eight Below on DVD would spark some interest in the 1983 film (which is still out of print, although the Video Station in Boulder has a VHS copy). But the previous film barely gets mentioned, and none of the extra features tell of the real story behind the story.

Instead, there is a “making-of” documentary that covers location scouting and the usual interviews with cast and crew, working in the Canadian rockies. These features are probably worth watching, if only to see more of the glorious setting.

My new DVD pet peeve is audio commentaries where the speaker is engrossed in watching the movie. It happens on Eight Below, as it does on so many other DVDs. You can hear the eyes glaze over as the speaker enters a TV-watching trance.

In the case of Eight Below, there are two commentary tracks, neither of which is particularly worth wading through. Track one features director Frank Marshall and one of the producers. Track two has Marshall (sometimes repeating himself) and Paul Walker, then halfway through, Walker leaves and cinematographer Don Burgess joins Marshall.

Of the speakers, Don Burgess was the most interesting. He pointed out some of the hidden jokes in the movie and touched on some of his approach to cinematography.

Then again, he was also the one who said: “There was also a constant discussion in if it was day or night. There are certain months of the year it’s always day, and certain months of the year it’s always night. We actually tried to be realistic and true to that in our story line.”

Why then, over the shot that reads “June 21” — the longest night of the year in Antarctica — is there footage of dogs in broad daylight?

Picture and Sound

The crisp, cold picture looks great. Even the documentary on the making of the movie looks very good. But much of the credit surely goes to the setting, rather than the DVD transfer. Separate widescreen and full-screen editions are available. The Dolby Digital Surround Sound is very good, and most noticeable when there is music.

Final Recommendation

Watch the movie (with a ten-year-old). Watch the making-of documentary. Skip the audio commentaries.