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Be careful what you wish for… you just might get it. In several of my other Blu-ray reviews I've lamented the fact that most of the releases are action films aimed at young males. Why, oh why can't they release a wider variety of films? Well Disney has jumped on the Blu-ray bandwagon and I have the honor of reviewing one of their first releases, the family-friendly Eight Below. Unfortunately this is a rather average film that even my children (10 and 14 years old) didn't find enthralling though it is presented with a very nice HD transfer.
Based (loosely I presume) on events that happened to a Japanese expedition to Antarctica in 1958, Eight Below stars Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious, Into the Blue) as Jerry Shepherd a survival expert and dog handler in Antarctica. Winter is approaching and they are getting ready to close up the base until next summer when a scientist, Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), arrives for one final excursion into the tundra. Jerry hitches up his Huskies and the pair head out.
The trip is a near disaster. Though McClaren does find what he's looking for they have to cut the trip short because of a violent story that is approaching. On the way back McClaren breaks his leg rather badly and Shepherd hands become frostbitten. They get back to base just in time to get the last plane back to McMurdo (the permanent US facility on the continent) but have to leave the eight dogs behind. When the storm hits the weather is so bad that they can't return for the canines and the poor animals are left to fend for themselves, all alone through the harsh winter.
Back in the states, Shepherd refuses to forget about his dogs and spends all of his time trying to get back to them. No one travels to Antarctica during the winter, and without any real money to back his trip he grows more and more desperate.
Meanwhile at the bottom of the world, the resourceful canines manage to stay alive. They break free from their collars and hunt sea birds for food. They even manage to find a dead killer whale that would keep them fed, but an angry leopard lion has already claimed it and isn't willing to share. Even with food though, how long can they last in the sever winter?
This movie was okay, but not that great. I never really cared about any of the human characters, and the time that they spent on screen was pretty drab. Yes Shepherd did care about his dogs, but he didn't come across as a particularly good expedition leader. He lets his boss browbeat him into going on a trip he feels is dangerous, and then lets the scientist talk him into staying out when a storm is coming. If they would have headed back when they were supposed to there would probably have been enough time to evacuate the dogs. He was supposed to be a sympathetic character too.
I did enjoy when the dogs were on the screen however. The director and their trainers were able to coax some very convincing performances out of the canines. Yes, it's anthropomorphizing, but you can tell what's going through their brains as they try to figure out how to get the dead whale away from the seal or how to open a door. It's a sad comment, but the dogs were better actors than the humans in this film.
One thing that bugged me is that there were a couple of factual and scientific errors through the film. The fact that this is a kid's film just made it worse. The most glaring example is how they used light. It was daylight during all of the scenes when the dogs are by themselves though it shouldn't have been. It's almost constantly dark in Antarctica during the winter months, with the sun peaking over the horizon for only an hour or so. It may seem like a small thing, but they are teaching children something that isn't true. Okay, I'll get off my soap box now.
Overall this was an okay film. A family film that kids would probably enjoy and adults should manage to sit though.
Note: The only Blu Ray DVD player on the market at the time of this review is the Samsung BD P1000. Apparently an error crept into the design, and a noise reduction algorithm on one of the chips was turned on which creates a softer picture. As yet there is no fix for this.
Though Blu-ray has had its share of disc that were less than impressive, this isn't one of them. The 2.40:1 widescreen image was just beautiful. I was really impressed. The scenes out on the tundra were really gorgeous and didn't have any of the problems associated with filming large patches of white. There wasn't any posterization issues and there were a wide range of shades that really help this film look great. There wasn't significant digital noise in these scenes (something that really surprised me) and the level of detail was very impressive. You can see the texture of the snow; it's not just a field of solid white.
The details in the other scenes were just as strong. You could see all of the hairs on the dog's faces clearly and even the discern lines in the iris' of their eyes. The contrast was very good too. The only thing that was less than optimal was the appearance of the GCI leopard seal. There wasn't as much detail on the CGI 'skin' of the animal as was apparent on the dogs themselves. You'll quickly forget about that when the aquatic mammal turns to howl at the camera and then fights the dogs.
Overall, I was impressed with the look of this movie. You can really see the advantages of this high definition format with this Blu-ray disc.
Disney offers up an uncompressed PCM 5.1 (48 kHz/16-bit) which sounds just fine. The movie itself didn't have a forceful and in-your-face soundtrack but it still used the soundstage to good effect. While the front speakers is where most of the sound comes from, the audio coming from the rears is more quiet; the sound of wind blowing across the snow covers plains and more subtle effects, but it does a good job of surrounding the viewer. The soundtrack had a good range, though the bass could have been pumped up a bit more in some of the scenes such as the fight with the leopard seal. This isn't a busy mix, but it fits the movie well.
Like most BDs BVHE decided to leave off most of the extras found on the SD version. The only extra that has been brought over is the commentary with director Frank Marshall, actor Paul Walker, and director of photography Don Burgess. This was an average commentary with some fun anecdotes about the dogs and location filming.
There is also an exclusive Blu-ray bonus feature: Ice, a short film by Louie Schwartzberg. This trip over ice filled fields was shot in HD and is accompanied by some nice, if somewhat generic, music. It looked good and there is the option to loop the film so you can keep it on as background noise if you so desire. I'm glad to see a studio adding exclusive HD content, though I'm not sure how often I'll watch this.
It seems that for every step forward, the format takes a step back. In this case we get some new content, but we lose the menus. When the disc is popped in the movie automatically starts. To select a different audio track or view a bonus item, the pop-up menu has to be accessed while the movie is playing. You have to set the subtitles and audio track on the fly which is a very inconvenient way of doing things. What were the people at Buena Vista thinking???
While this isn't the best film Disney has ever put out, it's not the worst either; an average family flick that most people will watch and forget. The transfer was very good however and made the film a lot of fun to watch. The wintry landscape is just gorgeous and the disc did a very good job of reproducing it. Recommended.