Jerry loves his dogs. They’re his family, his life. He’s raised each one by hand and depends on them, sometimes with his very life. Why? Because Jerry Shepard and his eight canines work for a small research team of scientists in the Antarctic as the resident dog sledding team who gets them and their equipment where they need to go. Jerry lives a life of risk and adventure alongside ex-girlfriend Katie and best friend Cooper, but the reason he does the job he does isn’t for them, it’s because of his dogs—Maya, Max, Shorty, Dewey, Truman, Shadow, Buck and Old Jack.
So, when a geologist arrives unexpectedly late in the season, Jerry is rather reluctant to harnesses his kids for one last trek across the treacherous glacial ice before they get to go home for the season. Turns out, Jerry had reason to be concerned. He knows his stuff, and soon Jerry, the eight dogs, and the scientist are fighting for survival as a deadly storm begins to roll in. But Maya’s not about to let anything happen to Jerry and her team. As leader of the pack (and Jerry’s girl, as he calls her) Maya manages to spur her team to reach the base with their now unconscious humans just in time for the Victoria team of scientists to be forced into an immediate evacuation. Maya’s loyalty to Jerry, and her ability to lead her team, is rewarded with a cruel fate, however. Davis is in critical condition, and the team’s lives are on the line in the midst of the storm. If they don’t get out now, they may not survive. So the team makes a decision. They are going to force Jerry to leave the base… without his dogs.
What follows is the inspiring story of how Maya will do everything to keep her family together, refusing to let them submit to the harsh fate of the arctic, and how Jerry will move heaven and earth to get back to his family, even though he knows the likelihood is he will only be going to pay his respects to their bravery and sacrifice.
Jerry has had issues with people in his past life, but he doesn’t have any issues with his dogs. He knows what makes each one tick. He knows their strengths and their weaknesses. He knows how to encourage his dogs to give their utmost without ever putting them in danger. He inspires them to the point where the dogs are willing to risk life and limb for Jerry. Why? Because they trust him. Trust, loyalty, determination, commitment, perseverance, hope- all of these themes are driving forces behind the movie Eight Below, and all of these traits are mirrored in the hearts and actions of Jerry and his eight dogs.
In the weeks that follow Jerry’s forced abandonment of the dogs, we see him deal with grief by throwing himself into his work. He knows there is no chance his dogs are alive. He promised Maya he’d come back for her in a couple days, and he needed her to take care of the kids. He was forced to break that promise, and now he’s isolating himself from the rest of the world. But Katie, despite being his ex, still cares about him and is willing to push him, giving him the drive to defy the world by doing what he knows is right. For fighting for what he loves most.
“You’ve got to take chances for the things you care about.” This is the phrase Jerry repeats to Davis when the two men meet up once again. Jerry’s intentions are clear. He’s not risking everything just for the thrill of it. No, Jerry is willing to risk everything for what matters most to him. His family. And even though that family is his dogs, the message rings true for the audience and carries over into many aspects of life.
And Jerry isn’t the only one who is inspiring people throughout the film. Maya and the other dogs fight for the survival of their pack, not just individuals. They help one another stay alive by hunting as a pack, keeping one another warm through the harsh storms that follow, battling off enemies, and even give touching encouragements in their unique canine ways. And Maya, Jerry’s top girl, takes her role seriously, placing herself in harm’s way before any of her pack members, and is willing to place their wellbeing as a whole over her own well being. Even if that means she won’t get to see Jerry again.
The only real issue with this film is that it can be intense, especially for young viewers. The movie centers around the ongoing peril of the dogs, and their multiple life threatening encounters, in an effort to survive the arctic, which can be a hard thing for more sensitive hearts to watch.
The brief scenes of violence are all animalistic, and very reminiscent of something you would see on Animal Planet. We see the dogs hunt together and tear apart their catch, but no blood is shown. There are, however, bloody paw prints left in the snow at different points in the movie, and audiences should be made aware that not all the dogs will survive the incredible journey they go through, based off of a real life story about a sled team.
Also worth noting is the few exclamations of h— used in the movie, and one use of the Lord’s name in vain.
I do not cry when I watch movies. I just don’t. And there are only certain types of movies that even manage to pull at my heart strings enough to make my throat constrict. Maybe it’s because I am such a “watch the movie with your mind the first time” type of person. I am unashamed, however, to tell you that this movie not only caused a hitch in my throat and a tightening in my chest, but it caused a few tears to be shed. Quite simply, this story moved me.
It’s got all the typical makings for an animal film (which I don’t typically enjoy): animals go through separation before being reunited with their human, and they experience great peril in the meantime. But this movie has something else in it that most other movies don’t have. It has heart.
Jerry’s soulful relationship with his dogs is not only utterly believable, but it paves the way for the audience to connect on a personal level with each animal. We see Maya’s quiet leadership and wisdom, and we love her for it. We watch as Max begins to grow into an Alpha dog under Maya’s aged direction. We feel pain as we watch Old Jack’s struggle to survive—each of these different canine personalities add a layer of richness to an already poignant story.
The filming is beautiful, the dogs are amazing actors with the ability to pull your heart by simply nudging one another when the elements force them to the ground, wanting to give up. Eight Below isn’t just engaging. It isn’t just an emotional roller coaster. It’s inspirational, and Jerry and the dogs have you willing them in your seat to keep on fighting for love and friendship. Never give up. No matter the odds.