'The Water Horse': Sweet story, lovingly told

Thursday, January 3, 2008

"The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep," set in wartime Scotland around 1942, centers around Angus MacMorrow, a solemn little guy (Alex Etel). Angus lives near a loch (Scottish for lake), in a sprawling stone house with his housekeeper mother (Emily Watson) and sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi). The family is waiting for Angus' dad to return from the war -- or at least that's what Angus thinks, because no one can bring themselves to tell him his beloved dad has likely been sunk along with his boat in the Royal Navy.

Angus, like his filmic antecedents (such as Elliot in "E.T." or Alex in "The Black Stallion") is a lonely, soulful-eyed boy, isolated on a large estate where his mother works. Angus is unable to fill the void in his life until he finds an unusual egg, which hatches into a mischievous flippered creature -- one that grows at an alarming rate -- that he keeps in the bathtub until it is so large that the only solution is to put it into the loch.

According to the handyman, the water horse is a mythical Scottish creature that lives in the water, has magical growth spurts, and has a connection to one human. Each creature is both male and female so it can lay an egg, after which it dies.

"The Water Horse" is a fairly ambitious story of loss and recovery set in World War II, built around some fairly decent special effects. Angus and Crusoe (the boy's name for the dragon-fish-horse) recklessly embark on a life-changing adventure, in cahoots with Kristie and a gruff but ultimately kindly handyman (Ben Chaplin), in a role that hints broadly at an intriguing subplot that's never brought to light. Together they devise ways to hide the creature while readying him for a return to the sea, scenes that give the movie a comic lift much like "E.T."

Meanwhile, the house is taken over by British soldiers, led by Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), a blustery twit whose family connections have ensured him this seriously plush post guarding the Scottish coastline against German invaders.

He stubbornly insists Scotland occupies "the front lines" of the war, much to the amusement of his regiment, which includes several hilariously rote villains, who do everything but twirl their mustaches as they plot against Angus and Crusoe, who is now brontosaurus-sized and has been moved to the nearby loch. You see where this is going.

The visual effects aren't cutting-edge, but they're good enough. Crusoe is a hugely likable beast, in large part because he's not sticky-sweet, but rather an ungainly, wild animal with a soft spot reserved only for Angus. Reminiscent of Alex riding the Black Stallion on the beach with arms held high, Angus goes for a ride on the full-grown water horse, hands and arms uplifted. The underwater ride got my heart racing.

While a few stressful battle scenes involving Crusoe, underwater explosions, and resultant PTSD, may prove too much for the under-10 crowd, "The Water Horse" is otherwise a truly family-friendly movie.

It's a joyful adventure. The war is discussed but violence never appears on screen. No one employs sarcasm and there's no swearing -- even the ostensible "bad guy" eventually softens into an amiable enough fellow. But for all the movie's good cheer, it's never dull. "The Water Horse" gets a bit shrill toward the end, with a plot that has British gunners trying to blow the creature out of the water as it makes a desperate run for freedom.

What it lacks in edginess, it more than makes up for with stunning scenery, a breathless finale and an irresistibly hopeful message: If you really love something, set it free -- especially if the object of your affection happens to be the Loch Ness Monster. Seriously, you can't keep that thing in your bathtub. This is predictably difficult for little Angus, who's formed the first meaningful emotional attachment since his father's departure.

"The Water Horse" is still a sweet, familiar story, beautifully filmed and lovingly told.

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