The movie is mostly set in the Antarctic, after an expedition with Dr. Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood), the sled dog trainer Jerry Shepherd (Paul Walker) has to leave the polar base with his colleagues due to the proximity of a heavy snow storm. He ties his dogs to be rescued after, but the mission is called off and the dogs are left alone at their own fortune. For six months, Jerry tries to find a sponsor for a rescue mission while his dogs fight for survival.
Both this film and the 1983 Japanese film Nankyoku Monogatari (better known as Antarctica) were loosely based on the same real-life events.
Tropes present in this film include:
- Big, Friendly Dog: Most of the canine cast, to varying degrees.
- Bittersweet Ending: Old Jack and Dewey die but the remaining six dogs live long enough to be rescued by Jack Shepard
- Disney Death: Maya is thought to be dead during her reunion with Shepard and Shadow. Luckily, it turns out she was just sleeping.
- Jump Scare: When one of the dogs investigates the carcass of a dead Orca, a leopard seal jumps right out of the body, and into the cameras face. Not the most pleasant thing to see up close and personal.
- Monstrous Seal: When Max is investigating a dead orca as potential food, a leopard seal lunges out of the carcass and chases him off. Max manages to lure it away by running off with a piece of meat, with the seal chasing him beneath the ice and leaving the other dogs free to eat until it figures out whats going on and doubles back, lunging at the dogs from behind and crippling Maya.
- Mood Whiplash: The scene where the dogs are bounding around beneath the Southern Lights, perfectly happy. One of the dogs then falls and is fatally injured.
- No One Gets Left Behind: At first averted, as the dogs are left behind; Shepherd, however, then makes every effort to go back and rescue them.
- Ret Irony: Old Jack
- Sled Dogs Through the Snow: The team of sled dogs composed of two Alaskan Malamutes, Buck and Shadow, and six Siberian Huskies, Max, Maya, Truman, Dewey, Shorty, and Old Jack. Mushing isn't a major part of the film since the main plot is about the dogs being left behind by the humans, but the early scenes that feature it serve to establish the team dynamics among the dogs. Namely that Maya is the boss and Max is the runt who needs to prove himself.
- Team Dad: Jerry. He even calls the dogs "kids".
- Team Mom: With the dogs, it seems Maya is this.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The true story behind this film was the 1958 Japanese scientific expedition to the South Pole. When the crew had to leave due to extreme weather conditions, they left their fifteen Sakhalin huskies behind thinking that they would come back and get them. However, they found that they couldn't due to fuel shortage and didn't return for a year. When they did, they were greeted by two dogs named Taro and Jiro who had managed to survive. Not quite as cheery an ending as Disney would like, but still pretty remarkable considering that huskies can only survive for about a month in that kind of environment.