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Antarctica More at IMDbPro »Nankyoku monogatari (original title)

The Brave Ones

Author: msia91 from Penang, Malaysia / Chicago, USA
5 September 2013

Antarctica is a white land of pure isolated beauty, and Koreyoshi Kurahara's "Antarctica", perhaps the best animal film I've seen, and also one of the greatest of all adventure films, ensures that thoroughly. The majestic white landscape of nature at its purest set the stage for its story about a group explorers who bond emotionally over a period of time during their journeys, only to find most of themselves stranded there following a hazardous winter storm, where they are forced to fend off threats from both nature itself and its creations.

What makes Kurahara's film intriguing is that 12 of the explorers aren't human. They are snow dogs, mostly trained by their respective owners in Hokkaido, Japan; and two others raised on the frozen continent itself. They get subjected to winter storms, the longest of nights and the unpredictable terrain of Antarctica as they scamper around the barren land looking for food to survive as long as they can. Meanwhile, the two scientists who bond with them (one of them played by the renowned Ken Takakura) relentlessly regret their decision to abandon the dogs that they have come to bond with during their expedition there, even though they know they do not have a choice in the matter. Takakura's character guilts so much that he resorts in apologizing to each previous owner personally. In a heart-wrenching scene, two girls forcibly return a puppy (born to one of the dogs in Antarctica) intended to be an apology gift.

Kurahara's masterstroke is that he makes the dogs the core of this survival tale, and he does so as if the camera were a watchful eye over the lost souls, lingering onwards when tragedy suddenly strikes. It can be argued that the film is a docudrama, with a helpful and non-intrusive narrator filling in the blanks at the right moments. It can also be called a visually spectacular epic as the beautiful, sweeping cinematography swoops over the white land and blue seas, the kind of shots that documentaries can never get. There are many magnificent scenes of startling beauty and skill to be appreciated in the film besides its powerful thematic content.

The humans' presence is brief but serve to highlight mankind's love for its own kind while forgetting nature's other creatures - rendering them expendable. Takakura and the rest of the actors do a great job in conveying the reality of the situation as naturally as real people would. This commentary is briefly explored as Kurahara wastes no time in returning to the dogs' situation.

The cinematographer Akira Shiizuka's camera pulls the audience straight into the film, joining the dogs on their quest for survival amidst the desolate yet overwhelmingly beautiful land. It becomes a character of its own, as per Vangelis' fantastic music score, which chimes perfectly as the heart and soul of the journey, like an angel giving strength and encouragement.

It is common sense that dogs work as a family when grouped and protect who they love. Having owned two dogs, they are both protective of their owners and friends. Though a dog in the movie prefer to be venturing alone, the rest of the survivors band together and search for food, shelter, anything. Absolutely heartbreaking (and for dog lovers, emotionally shattering) scenes occur throughout the ordeal, all of them a result of nature's fury.

This film was remade by Disney and Frank Marshall in 2006 as "Eight Below", with Paul Walker more or less as Takakura's role. Although a noble effort to recapture the essence of the original, it sentimentalizes numerous moments from the original too much that they becomes distractions. I could say the same for other Hollywood animal movies who try to connect to the audience by ways of sentimentality - even very effective ones like "War Horse" and "Free Willy". "Antarctica" doesn't aim for sentimentality - the film was based on a true story, and Kurahara shows its natural strength as it is - which tremendously adds to the emotional impact of the film. I merely find Hollywood animal films touching at best, but this one struck a chord with me and moved me with no expectations.

The film runs lengthily at 2 hours and 23 minutes, yet not a minute goes by that I wasn't enthralled at, not even during the human moments. I can only wonder why Criterion (or Disney even) did not pick the film up for a high-definition Home Video release, as that's the best way to watch it besides cinemas. It's not a kids' movie but it's something kids should watch. I only hope they and their parents will enjoy the experience as much as I loved it.

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