The 16 or so huskies playing the eight sled dogs in Disney's umpteenth animal adventure, ''Eight Below," do Oscar-caliber acting. They race, heel, attack, lick, and fall over. And at least one has a mean death scene. At nearly every turn, I swear I knew what they were thinking and how they were feeling.
Their hunger was my hunger. Their frozen snouts made mine seem cold. I don't think I could tell Maya apart from Jack, Shorty, Buck, Shadow, Max, Dewey, or Truman if my life depended on it. But after seeing them work their tails off in this fuzzy, mushy, chilly, slobbery heart-warmer, I'd trust them with my life -- were I an injured scientist stuck in the Antarctic as a terrible winter storm approaches, of course.
That's the fate awaiting Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), a geologist who's come to Antarctica in pursuit of a meteorite for a top-secret research purposes. Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker), his survival guide, tells him it's a dangerous mission (the ice is too thin) but takes him and the dogs anyway. Poor Jack, the oldest of Jerry's octet, was just about to retire, too, which makes him the Danny Glover in ''Lethal Weapon" of the group.
The doctor finds what he's looking for, but after falling in a lake he comes down with hypothermia and, along with Jerry, whose hands are frostbitten, has to be flown out of their base to a hospital. This happens just as ''two massive low-pressure systems" hit. The entire five-person base crew must evacuate, and there's no room in the airlift for the dogs! They're marooned, and Jerry is beside himself with guilt and anger. Or as beside himself as Paul Walker, in all his hunkiness, can demonstrate. His vast blue eyes, though, have never seemed so lonesome.
Jerry is determined to find a way back to the end of the Earth to save his dogs or, at the very least, pay his respects. Despite the fact that ''Eight Below" is based, in part, on a more grueling 1983 Japanese movie called ''Antarctica," its being a Disney movie fills you with hope that this will all work out: that Jerry will convince someone to fund a trip back, that the dogs will keep finding ways to fend for themselves (mmm, dead killer whale). But for most of the film, possibilities for a reunion don't look good. The movie counts the time the dogs survive on their own. Four days turn into 15, which swell into more upsetting numbers.
Veteran Hollywood producer Frank Marshall directed ''Eight Below," which is actually like a family-friendly version of ''Alive," Marshall's 1993 film about rugby players who find some unsavory survival techniques after their plane crashes in the Andes. But no matter how slim the pickings get for our sled dogs, they don't turn each other into supper. The dogs are more resourceful than that. My favorite example is when they steal the lunch of a vicious sea lion.
Jerry, meanwhile, pleads his case across America hoping against hope that he can make it back to Antarctica. And gradually ''Eight Below" turns into more than a mere cornball family picture.
It's the most touching love story about tragically separated sexy beasts since ''Cold Mountain."
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.