The most unfortunate aspect of The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep has nothing to do with the movie itself and everything to do with the juggernaut of marketing and our great love of the brand name. Here we have a charming little fantasy film that also manages to actually be about something. It contains nothing that I can imagine would offend even those with the tenderest sensibilities or the staunchest religious scruples. It has good special effects, a solid cast and the charming Alex Etel from Millions in the lead. I can’t think of a better movie to take a child to see during this holiday season. And yet, the film is losing out to the shrill silliness of Alvin and the Chipmunks in all its flatulence-gag stupidity and witless, noisy overkill. There’s something tragic about this.
Based on the book by Dick King-Smith (Babe), The Water Horse is set during World War II in Scotland and tells the story of young Angus MacMorrow (Etel), a withdrawn little boy who spends most of his time waiting for his father—played in flashbacks by Craig Hall (30 Days of Night)—to return from the war. A quick exchange of glances between his mother, Anne (Emily Watson), and older sister, Kirstie (newcomer Priyanka Xi), tell us that dad won’t be coming home at all. Due to a weakness in the script by Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat), it’s never clear whether Angus has never been told this, or if he’s living in denial.
The focus of Angus’ life changes when he discovers what turns out to be an egg that hatches to reveal the titular water horse: a small feisty beast Angus dubs Crusoe after Mr. Defoe’s famous character. Since animals are forbidden in the great house where his mother works as the housekeeper, he keeps Crusoe hidden in the estate’s workshop—a situation that becomes impossible when new handyman Lewis Mowbray (a surprisingly lively Ben Chaplin) arrives on the scene and sets up residence in the shop. Things become more complicated still with the encroachment of the military, members of which are suddenly billeted in the house. It quickly becomes a case of enlisting Lewis’ aid in order to keep anyone else from finding out about Crusoe, who grows in size at an alarming rate, so alarming, in fact, that he soon has to be taken to the nearest loch—the one called Loch Ness, of course.
One of the film’s chief delights lies in the surprising complexities of the characterizations. There’s an immediate attraction between Lewis and Anne, and Lewis takes on a kind of fatherly role for Angus, but the film just lets this be without stressing it. There’s also the matter of Lewis’ war-hero status, which is merely left at his statement that this is something he doesn’t “like to brag about.” Similarly, the officer in charge of the army, Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey, The Reaping), is generally painted as a snob and a probable coward (his search for Nazi U-boats in the loch seems to be the result of his father having pulled strings to keep him far away from actual fighting). At the same time, there’s an underlying depth to Hamilton, especially by the end.
In fact, the characters and the story are more interesting than the effects involving Crusoe—or rather they keep the film from becoming nothing more than another effects-driven adventure. The effects are good—ultimately even beautiful and exciting—and they do manage to make Crusoe seem like a living creature that it’s impossible not to care about. Still, the Crusoe effects aren’t perfect by any means. The early scenes with the baby Crusoe are a little too cute, too precious and too slapsticky for my taste (I suspect children will find them otherwise). But once the animal is taken to the loch, the film largely eschews this approach, becoming instead a compelling story—albeit one that’s fairly predictable. However, the predictability of The Water Horse isn’t a bad thing. It’s the kind of approach that fulfills expectations and feels right in a way that something more surprising likely wouldn’t. If you’re in search of family fare that won’t have the adults in the audience checking their watches, this is it. Rated PG for some action/peril, mild language and brief smoking.