The word "mush" leaps to mind in more ways than one while watching Disney's "Eight Below."
This family adventure about a team of sled dogs abandoned in Antarctica naturally invokes the traditional shout of "Mush!" urging the canines to go faster, but it's also an apt descriptor of both its shameless sentimentality and ineptly structured story.
We know we're squarely in the land of manipulation from the first strains of Mark Isham's emotive score as we're introduced to the staff of a research mission on the icy continent at the bottom of the globe. The nominal star of the film, Paul Walker, plays Jerry, a guide and sled driver who is seriously devoted to his dogs. He's offset by Jason Biggs' Coop, the comic relief and team cartographer. Gerard Plunkett and Belinda Metz, as scientists, round out the staff.
Jerry's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Katie (Moon Bloodgood), is the pilot who transports supplies and passengers in and out of the remote location. Her latest trek brings scientist Davis McLaren (Bruce Greenwood), who is intent on finding a meteorite from Mercury he believes landed in the area.
Though it's late in the season, with winter bearing down, Jerry and McLaren head off with the sled dogs in search of a rock from the meteor. A nasty storm forces them to return early, and the sequence is by far the film's most thrilling and the only part really worthy of the "adventure" label. Unfortunately, the action occurs roughly 30 to 45 minutes into the film, leaving some tough sledding for the audience.
After the researchers hurriedly pull up stakes, leaving the dogs to fend for themselves, for the next 45 minutes or so we're subjected to cutting back and forth between Jerry, racked by guilt, moping around the United States and attempting to drum up funding for a rescue, and the dogs, fighting for survival in the snow and ice.
The long separation of the canines from their less-interesting human colleagues works against the film's interests, resulting in a dramatically soft framework. While the dogs' battle is certainly worthy, all the switching back and forth undercuts any buildup of tension.
Written by David DiGililo and "suggested" by the 1983 Japanese film "Nankyoku Monogatari," the film also suffers from a largely anticlimactic ending that seems to forget the audience has already been given the information that is supposed to swell our tear ducts. The dogs are nice to look at, and director Frank Marshall, whose producing credits ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Color Purple" and "The Sixth Sense") far outstrip the films he has directed ("Alive," "Arachnophobia" and "Congo"), finds beauty in the snowy vistas, but the film itself is like eating cold porridge.
MPAA rating: PG for some peril and brief mild language
A Buena Vista Pictures Distribution release. Director Frank Marshall. Screenplay David DiGilio, suggested by the film "Nankyoku Monogotari." Producers David Hoberman, Patrick Crowley. Director of photography Don Burgess. Editor Christopher Rouse. Costume designer Jori Woodman. Music Mark Isham. Production designer John Willett. Running time: 2 hours.
In general release.