Jerry Shepard lives on the bottom of the world. His job? Guiding researchers to remote locations (which is pretty much all of them) on the continent of Antarctica—and taking care of the sled dogs that get them there. Along with a small team of specialists at the Victoria research station (among them, Katie, an ex-girlfriend and pilot; and Cooper, a cartographer and resident geek), Jerry lives a life of risk and adventure as he serves scientists, helping them do work they could not accomplish anywhere else. And he wouldn't have it any other way, because Jerry's eight canine co-workers—Maya, Max, Shorty, Dewey, Truman, Shadow, Buck and Old Jack—are his life, his family.
Enter Dr. Davis McLaren, a geologist who arrives unexpectedly late in the "summer." Davis is convinced he knows the location of a rare meteorite from Mercury, and he's determined to find it. Though the warm season—when temperatures rise to a balmy 30 degrees below zero—is almost over, Jerry reluctantly harnesses his dogs for one last trek across the treacherous glacial ice of Antarctica.
Jerry and Davis, of course, soon find themselves in the grip of a merciless Antarctic tempest. Only Maya's intrepid leadership and her fellow furry peers keep the men alive, as the dogs drag their sled and its two—now unconscious—occupants back to base. The loyal dogs' reward is a cruel one. In the teeth of the storm, the Victoria team is forced to evacuate—without them.
The balance of this inspiring film shows us how the animals refuse to submit to their cold fate and how their master desperately searches for a way to return to his beloved companions, even if only to pay his respects to their bravery.
Friendship, commitment, determination, perseverance and hope are all major themes. Jerry loves his dogs like family—even to the point of calling them his kids. He knows their strengths and weaknesses, and he knows how to get the most out of them without placing them in needless peril. When he's forced against his will to abandon the dogs, he can think of little else but trying to rescue them in the months that ensue.
Likewise, the dogs help one another stay alive once they've been left behind by sharing the food they manage to find, protecting each other and even "encouraging" one another in their inimitable canine ways.
When Jerry deals with grief by throwing himself into his work and isolating himself relationally, Katie comes to find him in Oregon. And she plays an important part in helping him get back to Antarctica. At the beginning of the film, Davis is committed to his work above all else; but over time he softens and eventually decides to give Jerry leftover research money to help fund his return to the frozen continent. Davis is also a devoted family man who values his relationships with his wife and son.
Another ultimately positive message that Eight Below emphasizes is, "You've got to take chances for the things you care about." When Davis first speaks these words to Jerry, they're not much more than a self-serving platitude. But Jerry repeats the phrase later, and it's clear that his determination to risk everything is not about recklessness, but about his willingness to do anything for what matters most to him.
Jerry and Katie share a long kiss.
The brief scenes of violence in Eight Below are mostly of the Animal Planet or Discovery Channel kind. To survive the Antarctic winter, the dogs learn to hunt. A scene shows them working together to capture seagulls; they hungrily tear apart their prey (no blood is shown). A leopard seal surprises the dogs, chases them and bites one on the leg. Retaliation involves biting and nipping at the seal until it flees. Old Jack cuts his paw while pulling the sled, leaving bloody paw prints in the snow. [Spoiler Warning] Two of the eight dogs perish; one after succumbing to the elements, the other after slipping off an ice ledge and breaking its leg.
Physically suspenseful elements involving human characters center around Dr. Davis. He partially falls into a crevasse (the dogs pull him out), breaks his leg plunging down an icy slope and crashes through thin ice into frigid water (again, the dogs' efforts save him). Frostbite renders Jerry's fingertips black.
Crude or Profane Language
Three exclamations of "h---" and one of "Oh my God."
Drug and Alcohol Content
At a reception celebrating Davis' successful mission, the scientist orders a scotch, and Jerry drinks a beer. Other people at the reception can be seen drinking as well. In New Zealand, Jerry goes to a bar looking for a skipper to take him back to Antarctica.
Other Negative Elements
The crew at the research station passes the time by playing cards (it seems that they are betting junk food, not money). Also, the film opens with a shot of Jerry and Cooper (both shirtless) egging each other on as they rev up the heat in a sauna before racing outdoors—into sub-zero temperatures.
With the exception of a few mild profanities, Disney has laudably resisted the temptation to add to Eight Below questionable wink-wink, nudge-nudge humor aimed at adults (content the Mouse House hasn't always skirted even in its supposedly family friendly fare). The only other consideration parents of younger children should keep in mind is the ongoing depicted peril of the dogs and a series of intense encounters between the dogs and other Antarctic denizens, some of which might be too much for sensitive hearts to bear.
The narrative arc of most animal films predictably includes both tragedy and triumph, separation and reconciliation. And this one is no different. What caught me off guard, however, was how strongly Frank Marshall's direction of this tale, which is loosely based on a true story, pulled at my heartstrings. Jerry's soulful relationship with his dogs is utterly believable, and it paved the way for my own connection with each animal. Maya's quiet leadership and wisdom, Max's growing "alpha dog" skills, Old Jack's struggle to survive—each of these different canine personalities added a layer of richness to an already poignant story. At times it felt like Lassie Come Home, only with eight dogs instead of one, with panoramic, March of the Penguins-like scenery thrown in for good measure.
Like that documentary about penguins' cooperative, communal way of life, Eight Below offers an engaging, emotional story about hope, friendship and, most of all, never giving up—no matter how cold it gets.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Paul Walker as Jerry Shepard; Bruce Greenwood as Dr. Davis McLaren; Moon Bloodgood as Katie; Jason Biggs as Cooper; Koda Bear, Jasmine and Kalista as Maya; D.J. and Timba as Max; Jasper and Yukon as Shorty; Floyd and Ryan as Dewey; Sitka and Chase as Truman; Noble and Troika as Shadow; Conan and Flapjack as Buck; Suli and Buck as Old Jack
Frank Marshall ( )