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Packing a punch 'Eight Below' aims at family audience with real drama

The tagline for Disney's "Eight Below" is as follows: "The most amazing story of survival, friendship and adventure ever told."

Ever told? A bit presumptuous, isn't it? I can't quite agree with the poster's assessment, but I can say that "Eight Below" is a well-made, exciting family film that will be eaten up by animal lovers like people food by a canine.

Here's the formula: cold climate, likable cast, adorable sled dogs -- Oh dear God, a sequel to "Snow Dogs"?!

Rest easy moms and dads, this is not the case. Instead, the film is a nicely told drama with thrills, some heart, and, most importantly, plucky, playful dogs.

The film, based on a National Geographic article, tells the tale of Gerry Shepherd, a young American guide on a scientific expedition in extreme Antarctica with his friend, Cooper, played by Jason Biggs, and a determined scientist, Davis, played by Bruce Greenwood.

Shepherd has a close bond with his sled dogs, but an accident and some tricky weather force the team to make a tough choice and temporarily leave the dogs behind.

This forces the precocious pooches to fight for survival in the wild, as their human companions work to track them down. Happily, the dogs are fighters, and they work until their fur is almost frozen to get back to their pals.

Kids might be a bit troubled by scenes of the dogs in constant peril, but the camera does not linger on such sights, and parents should find the film's message of friendship and survival a very positive one. However, there is a rather surprising scare involving a nasty leopard seal that seemed to genuinely shock the preview audience.

Yes, the dogs are cute, and they'd better be. Their "Awww!"-inducing names include Old Jack, Shorty and Dewey, and they show as much Lassie-esque personality as such four-legged movie stars should.

The human star is Walker, an actor with quite possibly the most anonymous appearance in mainstream cinema; his visage seems to simply disappear into the background of the film, like a potted plant or a family portrait. Yet he has finally found himself a good part here, a character with some intelligence and warmth, and he does well with it.

Sadly, for him at least, Walker always manages to find co-stars who completely upstage him -- Vin Diesel in "The Fast and the Furious," Tyrese Gibson in the atrocious "2 Fast 2 Furious," Jessica Alba's looks in "Into the Blue" -- and "Eight Below" is no exception, as Walker's canine companions make him, once again, fade away.

Still, this was a wise choice for the actor. The film should prove to be a modest little earner, and will likely have a strong shelf life on DVD and the Disney Channel. This is sure to be Biggs' most-watched film since "American Pie 3." The occasionally likable young actor has some good lines here, lending a wee bit of comic relief. In fact, a more ambitious film might have cast Biggs as Shepherd.

"Eight Below" fits nicely in director Frank Marshall's back catalog of critters in crisis sagas. However, visually the film lacks the stark poetry of Carroll Ballard's "Never Cry Wolf," a far more involving, if much darker, family film.

Yet thanks to the pleasant cast and the ever-cute dogs, "Eight Below" will likely please.

It seems that Disney is more likely to make bad comedies (i.e., Tim Allen in "The Shaggy Dog") than family friendly drama these days. And that's a shame. As "Eight Below" demonstrates, dramas that can be watched and appreciated by both small-fry and adults are a rare and welcome occasion. And hey, next to "Snow Dogs," "Eight Below" is practically "The Godfather."

3 stars (out of 4)

EIGHT BELOW

STARRING: Paul Walker, Bruce Greenwood and Jason Biggs

DIRECTOR: Frank Marshall

RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes

RATING: PG for peril and some mild language

THE LOWDOWN: An accident in the Antarctic cold forces a team of explorers to leave their sled dogs to fend for their lives.

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