We’re just moments into the majestic Antarctic snow whiteness of Eight Below when a cute little penguin flaps and shimmies out of the water through a crack in the ice, shuffling off as if in search of the open bar at a black-tie event. Sorry, buddy, wrong picture! Despite the early cameo appearance of a flightless waddler as a subliminal link to the success of March of the Penguins, Disney’s spirit-affirming family affair about the resourcefulness of God’s creatures leaves the birds to their baroque reproductive choreography and casts its bid for audience love with an adventure drama about doggies.
There are eight of them, you see — below (as in the bottom of the world), as well as working under subzero conditions — and the canine octet spend their days harnessed to sleds, transporting scientists around otherwise unnavigable territory. Their nights, meanwhile, are drowsed away at a base station watching survival guide Jerry (Paul Walker) flirt chastely with bush pilot Katie (former Laker Girl Moon Bloodgood) and pal around manfully with goofball cartographer Cooper (Jason Biggs). The arrival of an ambitious geologist (always pleasurable Bruce Greenwood) who won’t let bad weather slow down his research puts the canine team through their paces: Naturally, the brash human ignores warnings against venturing beyond safe terrain, and naturally, the doggies save him from what might have been a deadly accident, tempering his vanity with their four-legged goodness.
But not until dire weather sets in and the entire nattering population of B actors, with their B-human story lines, is evacuated by airlift while the dogs are forced to stay behind does Eight Below get to work. And then this clean, classical, hooray-for-the-pooches picture, directed by veteran Frank Marshall for what seems like the pure geographic fun of it, does the thing that Disney animals-in-the-snow movies have been doing so reliably — and satisfyingly — since White Wilderness nearly 50 years ago: It tells a wordless, admirable tale of quadruped bravery, cooperation, loyalty, patience, and nobility, with crisp nature photography and fine, round music.
Based on a Japanese Antarctic film and inspired by a real-life story of sled dogs who survived extended subzero abandonment, Eight Below teeters at times too coyly on the frozen territory of anthropomorphism — the handsome, personable dogs who find a way to survive until the humans return aren’t just impressive animals (and terrific movie stars, at that), they’re also designated as ”heroes” who enact psychological dramas of their own in David DiGilio’s ingratiating script.
But happily, Marshall and his superb cinematographer, Don Burgess (Spider-Man), attend to the big picture, letting nature speak for herself beyond the reach of staged conflicts. There’s something invigorating about this unpretentious dog tale. And if a penguin drops by to promote his own movie product, well, there’s room on the frozen continent for all.