The family adventure "Eight Below" is an easy watch, thanks to the splendors of frosty scenery and furry canines. Pic, which follows eight sled dogs trapped in Antarctica and the humans who try to rescue them, is an entertaining story (but less so when bipeds are taking up valuable four-legged screentime). The Disney offering should do reasonable winter biz, with better to come as a home-format item.

The family adventure “Eight Below” is an easy watch, thanks to the splendors of frosty scenery and furry canines. Pic, which follows eight sled dogs trapped in Antarctica and the humans who try to rescue them, is an entertaining story (but less so when bipeds are taking up valuable four-legged screentime). The Disney offering should do reasonable winter biz, with better to come as a home-format item.

Pic is “suggested” by the 1983 Nippon feature “Nankyoku Monogatari” (Antarctica), which was in turn inspired by real-life events. The Japanese version was set in 1958, with two human protags, and seven out of nine dogs doomed early on. This version is set in the early ’90s, with a single principal human and a much happier ending for man’s best friends.

The film, shot in Canada, Norway and Greenland, marks prolific producer Frank Marshall’s first bigscreen directorial effort since “Congo” (1995); Marshall and his team do a good job suggesting both the majesty and fearsomeness of the Antarctica landscape.

And while huskies may not be the most facially expressive of dogs, they certainly are among the most handsome; as long as the movie concentrates on the octet’s against-the-odds survival, the film is thoroughly engaging.

Jerry (Paul Walker) is a resident guide at the U.S. National Science Research Base in Antarctica. His comic sidekick is cartographer Charlie Cooper (Jason Biggs), and there are still some embers burning in his officially cooled relationship with the site’s pilot supplier Katie (Moon Bloodgood).

One day she flies in an ambitious Yank academic, Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), who hopes to be the first to find fragments of meteorites from the planet Mercury. Trouble is, winter is approaching, and the location he’s determined to explore is a risky distance away.

Jerry reluctantly harnesses up his beloved team of eight sled dogs — six Siberian huskies and two “all brawn, no brain” Malamutes — and does as the cocky prof bids. Their mission is a success, despite one particularly scary moment, but during their return a massive storm descends.

Men and dogs barely make it back through the blizzard, and, when they reach the base, they discover everyone must be evacuated by air immediately. There’s no room on-board for the hounds, but Katie promises Jerry she’ll fly back to get them as soon as the humans are dropped off in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, weather conditions prevent that from happening. With winter’s premature start, the dogs — chained together so they won’t run away — are stranded for the season, almost certain to die of exposure and hunger.

With no way of knowing their fate, Jerry roams the globe trying to drum up funds for an emergency rescue operation. Meanwhile, the dogs have broken free of their constraints and learn to survive by themselves.

Periodic titles report how long they’ve been left alone, with more than six months passing before help finally arrives.

The film’s full two hours can be felt in the scenes dealing with human characters, who get way too much screentime in pic’s long midsection.

Walker’s Jerry is a bit bland and Jerry’s feelings for the dogs in his charge — or for Katie, for that matter — never feel like more than a necessary script conceit. Other cast members make competent but undistinguished contribs, excepting Biggs’ likeable turn.

The few post-prod f/x (a “Jurassic Park”-looking vicious leopard seal, an aurora borealis lightshow) tend to stick out like sore thumbs. Otherwise, all tech aspects are high-grade; Mark Isham’s atypically conventional, rousing orchestral score is a significant plus.

Eight Below

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation in association with Spyglass Entertainment of a Mandeville Films production. Produced by David Hoberman, Patrick Crowley. Executive producers, Todd Lieberman, Masaru Kakutani, Frank Marshall, Roy Lee, Christine Iso, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum. Directed by Frank Marshall. Screenplay, Dave Digilio, suggested by the film "Nankyoku Monogatari."

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Don Burgess; editor, Christopher Rouse; music, Mark Isham; production designer, John Willett; supervising art director,, Ross Dempster; art director, Jeremy Stanbridge; set decorator, Peter Lando; costume designer, Jori Woodman; sound (Dolby Digital), Kirk H. Francis; animal trainer, Mike Alexander; assistant director, Luc Etienne; second unit director, C. Mitchell Amundsen; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood (U.S.), Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter (Canada). Reviewed at AMC 1000, San Francisco, Feb. 1, 2006. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Jerry Shepard - Paul Walker Davis McClaren - Bruce Greenwood Katie - Moon Bloodgood Charlie Cooper - Jason Biggs Dr. Andy Harrison - Gerard Plunkett Mindo - August Schellenberg Eve McClaren - Wendy Crewson Rosemary - Belinda Metz
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