As I lamented in my recent review of 'Seabiscuit,' there is something about the idea of "animal movies" that makes me cringe. I always expect some sort of treacy, mawkish tale of a boy and his (insert pet here), which will of course end tragically as said animal dies of some rare disease or is hit by a bus. Such movies are usually mediocre family melodramas at best, who only achieve any sort of resonance by resorting to the easy gimmick of killing off the cuddly critter. And okay, sure, the stunt always works -- I cried at 'Old Yeller,' 'Lassie' and 'Benji,' too. But does that really make them good movies?
So it is always refreshing when a movie like 'Eight Below' comes along. Not that the film is a new classic, or even a great movie. But for a film that stars Paul Walker, an octet of sled dogs, a pretty threadbare plot and was made by Disney, it is a small miracle indeed that 'Eight Below' turns out to be such a rousing, exciting adventure. Here is that rare film that earns the tag "fun for the whole family" yet still avoids most of the worst cliches and trappings of the genre.
Our story takes place in the Antarctic. Near the end of an expedition headed by Doctor Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), sled dog trainer Jerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) and his team (including 'American Pie's Jason Biggs and 'Monk' alumnus Moon Bloodgood) have to leave the polar base as a potentially deadly arctic storm brews on the horizon. Shepherd ties his beloved dogs behind in anticipation that the mission will resume, but instead it is eventually called off. For nearly six months the dogs must fend for themselves and face all manner of adversary, and their fate becomes a race against time as Shepherd searches tirelessly for sponsors to resume the expedition and rescue the dogs.
'Eight Below' turned out to be a rather different film than I anticipated going in. In fact, it is really two films in one. Director Frank Marshall alternates between the parallel stories, focusing almost equally on the trials and tribulations of the sled dogs as Shepherd's search and rescue mission. The mix is sometimes uneasy, but 'Eight Below' still works because the dogs are so convincing as performers that they easily outclass the human element.
Indeed, I was often riveted at the dogs' adventures. Marshall's assured direction of the canines, combined with clockwork-like pacing and excellent cinematography by Don Burgess, makes their story as suspenseful as a thriller. One sequence in particular, in which a snow leopard threatens the brood, is up there with the best sequences involving animals I've ever seen put on celluloid. I also like that Marshall was able to convey such a range of emotion through the dogs' movements and behaviors, as of course they cannot speak. Combined with the oppressive nature of producing a film in such harsh conditions (the film was shot on location in the arctic), it's quite an accomplishment indeed.
If 'Eight Below' has any weakness, it is that the human element is not nearly so compelling. I did like the performers -- Walker, Moonblood and especially Greenwood do their best to flesh out their characters, and their interactions as scientists was believable. However, most of these scenes are way too talky, and they quickly grow tiresome as we just want to get back to the dogs. Of course, some sort of resolution is needed to the story, and we can't help but cheer when Shepherd is finally reunited with his furry pals (oh, c'mon, like you didn't know the ending already!) Sure, 'Eight Below' is far from a perfect movie, but anytime those dogs are on the screen, it works.
Of Buena Vista's first wave of Blu-ray releases, including 'Dinosaur' and 'Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back,' 'Eight Below' was the only one I wasn't really disappointed with. Not that any of the first Disney titles are bad, per se, but 'Eight Below' at least delivers the kind of transfer that reminds you why you invested so much money in a high-def home theater.
Not that this is a total home run. Presented in 2.40:1 and 1080p/MPEG-4 video, the source material is in very good shape, and does not suffer from any major blemishes or excessive grain. Occasionally, however, I notice a slight bit of wavering with colors on solid patches of background, such as skies and sunsets. Softness, too, can be an issue, with close-ups quite sharp, but medium and long shots tend to be flatter.
However, there is much to recommend here as well. The cinematography by Don Burgess is simply magnificent, and there are moments during this transfer that are truly breathtaking. The film's vast palette of whites and grays comes across very well, with contrast excellent across the entire scale. Thankfully, nothing is overpumped and whites don't bloom. Detail can also be extraordinary in spots. and up there with the best high-def, regardless of format. Unfortunately, this transfer does suffer from a lack of consistency, but when it hits, it hits the bull's eye.
Buena Vista serves up another uncompressed PCM 5.1 (48 kHz/16-bit) surround track on 'Eight Below,' and even though it is not a full 24-bit mix it is still a very nice presentation. The film's sound design is quite active and lively, so even with a lack of action-movie bombast there is a solid level of envelopment throughout.
Surround use in 'Eight Below' is largely subdued until there is a need for wintery ambience, and then the rears kick in nicely. Discrete effects can be quite pronounced at times, especially with wind, nature sounds and Mark Isham's score. Dynamic range is more robust than on the standard DVD release, with the PCM track delivering noticeably expanded mid-range and cleaner highs. Dialogue, even during busy outside scenes, is always clear and intelligible. Low end is also stronger, with the dog barks and grows packing a nice punch. Granted, nothing about 'Eight Below' is really demo material, but it suits the material perfectly fine.
Similar to Sony and Lionsgate's initial Blu-ray offerings, Buena Vista has largely eschewed extras on their first discs as well. That's partly due to this being a more bitrate-deprived BD-25 single-layer disc, as well as Disney's decision to opt for uncompressed PCM soundtracks, which take up more space. In any case, the pickings here are quite slim indeed, and just about all of the extras from the standard-def DVD are gone.
In fact, the only supplement ported over is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Frank Marshall, actor Paul Walker, and director of photography Don Burgess. However, it is a pretty good track. Though Marshall and Burgess sometimes lapse into areas that are too technical, especially when it comes to discussing the rigors of location shooting, there is some good talk about the dogs and their various personalities, which is certainly the highlight. Walker also comes across as a likable guy, even if I'm not a huge fan of his work as an actor. The only disappointment for me was that, as the film was based on a true story, I hoped for at least some discussion on the real-life tale behind the movie. But no luck.
'Eight Below' is one of those movies you go in expecting to be embarrassed to watch, and come out surprised at how much you enjoyed it. The words "Disney" and "nature film" often make me cringe, but 'Eight Below' is a genuinely exciting, moving adventure that truly is fun for the whole family. As one of Buena Vista's debut Blu-ray titles it is a very nice-looking disc, and the soundtrack isn't too shabby, either. Extras are slim, however, so the rather steep $34.95 price tag may confine this one for the discount bin.