The Disney live-action sled dog adventure 8 Below was the top grossing film the weekend it opened, and it is still sitting number two, having made over $45 million in two weeks. Meanwhile, John Grogan's tale of his yellow lab with a brain of cast iron but a heart of gold is #1 on Amazon, heads the NYT hardcover nonfiction list, has sold nearly a million copies, and the film rights have just been bought by Fox 2000.
I saw 8 Below last night with my husband and eleven-year-old daughter. If anyone is reluctant to see the movie because they are disgusted with the descent of Disney into previously uncharted regions of stupidity and bad taste, consider giving this one a try anyway. 8 Below is not great cinema, but it is something just as rare: a movie one can enjoy, without embarassment and without boredom, in the presence of one's children. The action, characterization, and plot are straightforward but believable; the cinematography is gorgeous, and the animals are memorable and engaging.
Surprisingly, the eight dogs are not overly anthropomorphized cartoons. With one exception, none of the dogs does anything I have not seen echoed in my own Siberian. I don't believe female huskies have the ability to coordinate six males, via short barks and apparent telepathy, to execute a cunning plan to capture seabirds -- with the subtlety of Navy Seals taking an enemy outpost on a moonless night -- but other than that every action is pack behavior familiar to anyone who's ever owned a working dog.
The story is simple, and simply told: as the result of natural forces beyond anyone’s control, Jerry Shepherd, a guide employed by the National Science Foundation Antarctic Research Station, is forced to leave behind his team of eight sled dogs when the station is evacuated. It is impossible to travel to the continent until the following Southern hemisphere summer, and he returns to the States unable to shake off his sense of responsibility for abandoning his dogs. Everyone tells him it is not his fault, he should “let himself off the hook” and forgive himself, but he can’t. Juxtaposed against Jerry's efforts to first forget and then rejoin his pack, are scenes of the dogs' struggles to survive on their own, from the aforementioned seabirds escapade to raiding the Russian station's pantry. Eventually Jerry's stubborn devotion to his dogs snares three others, who were on the station when the disaster happened, into assisting him in gaining the continent to either rescue the team or face the reality of their deaths.
(An aside: to a former NSF staffer, the idea of using an unreconciled surplus in a research grant account as deus ex machina is pretty, well....imaginative.)
I have not read Marley and Me, but I predict that before long this book will have sold 25 million copies. After all, there are 50 million dog-owning households in the US, and at least half of them will be curious about the intriguing, if improbable, notion that the World’s Worst Dog is not the one sitting on the professionally-clean-only sofa in the next room gutting a hand embroidered silk throw pillow or tearing the cap off a bottle of truffle oil.
In my house The World’s Worst Dog is named Jeeves, he’s a saluki, he crossed my threshold in September 1996, and whatever Marley might have done in his thirteen years, Jeeves has done him one better. The dog has eaten through plaster walls, air conditioners, feather beds, and seat belts. He has stolen and devoured enough meat, bread, chocolate, honey, and peanut butter to eradicate starvation in a smallish African country. He barks at my daughter’s little girlfriends just because it frightens them, and pees on the floor whenever he feels like it. He has awakened me every night for nine years so I can move over and let him get under the covers.
And if he were abandoned and lost somewhere, I would move heaven and earth to get him back, for the same reason that motivates the fictional Jerry Shepherd to cadge a helicopter, ice breaker, Italian Snow Cat and the services of three other science professionals to go after eight dogs that are probably dead anyway. And it's not sentimentality, misplaced anthropomorphism, or the overrefined sensitivity of wealthy, coddled people who have the luxury of treating their pets as if they were children. It is because Jeeves and I, like Jerry and his sled team, have forged a bond based on the pursuit of a common objective. The very qualities that make Jeeves annoying -- his barking, his suspicious reserve with strangers, his hyperactive scanning of the horizon for any perceived threat, from a squirrel to a serial killer -- make him a trusted aide for a woman who spends hours alone each day in an isolated house.
This is not a strict utilitarianism. It is, rather, more like the ties that used to bind families together, in the days when households were centers of independent economic activity, instead of places to sit in separate rooms wired to separate pieces of electronic gear to blow off the stresses of living parallel but separate lives in the global economy. How much of the alienation wives feel from their husbands and vice versa, how many arguments over work schedules, money, child rearing responsibilites, are caused by an economy that pits spouses at odds against each other, instead of harnessing them together like a sled team? I don't know, but I haven't had an argument with either one of my dogs in ages.