As on-screen performers, the "Eight Below" canine cast members are real naturals. In fact, each one gives the kind of performance that filmmakers dream of when they undertake this kind of project.
However, their human co-stars are considerably less interesting, and that's the biggest problem with this outdoor adventure drama, which spends too much time with the humans and not enough with the considerably more watchable animals.
The film also feels too long and more than a little padded. But it does have a few effective moments and is at least one of the few family films out there right now that isn't filled with crass, vulgar humor.
Paul Walker stars as Jerry Shepard, a member of a National Science Foundation team in Antarctica. Jerry is an experienced tracker and outdoorsman, and he leads the base's dogsled team.
He's been assigned to guide and transport Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), a scientist who's trying to find meteor fragments possible remnants from the planet Mercury on a remote Antarctic slope. But during their expedition, Davis is injured, and, with ample help from the dogs, Jerry saves his life.
At the same time, the worst Antarctic storm in more than 25 years blows in, forcing research teams to evacuate before winter really sets in. Unfortunately, they only have room for the humans and have to leave the eight sled dogs behind.
The film pretty much splits into two running stories at that point one about Jerry's efforts to return to Antarctica to see what's become of his animal friends, and another about the dogs freeing themselves from their shackles and doing whatever they can to survive.
The latter plays out almost like a canine version of the 1993 survival adventure "Alive," which was also directed by Frank Marshall, and he and screenwriter David DiGilio have taken a few liberties with the true story on which "Eight Below" is based (as well as the 1983 Japanese drama "Nankyoku Monogatari").
Thankfully, however, he's got those scene-stealing pooches. In fact, Walker's best scenes are those where he goes to the dogs, so to speak. And in support, Jason Biggs does get a few welcome chuckles as a wisecracking member of the Antarctic research team. But a subplot about Walker's on-again, off-again romance with a female pilot, played by relative newcomer Moon Bloodgood, feels obligatory.
"Eight Below" is rated PG for a few intense scenes of animal violence and peril, some brief, animal-related gore, and scattered use of mild profanity (mostly religiously based). Running time: 120 minutes.