Water Horse, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Consider it Free Willy with the Loch Ness Monster. It's that kind of family-friendly movie - one that focuses on the friendship between a lonely boy and an animal. In this case, the animal happens to grow up to become Nessie. The story is clever and heartwarming enough for the film to work on some level for adults and children (although it skews younger). Plus, the CGI work is competently done. Crusoe (as the Loch Ness Monster is called) is suitably cute and cuddly when he's small and imposing when he's big. The special effects are properly integrated into the story; there is no instance in which they call unwanted attention to their existence.

The film opens in a modern-day pub adjacent to Loch Ness. A visiting American couple notices a copy of the famous newspaper photograph of the monster mounted on the wall. The guy remarks that it's a fake and one of the residents (Brian Cox) agrees with him. He then offers to tell them the whole story. When they agree to hear the tale, his words take them (and us) back to 1942 Scotland. Young Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel), still in denial about his father's death, is searching for a friend. He finds it when a strange object he discovers while beachcombing hatches a tiny reptile. Angus feeds it and nurses it to health, while keeping it secret from his mother (Emily Watson), his sister (Priyanka Xi), the new handyman (Ben Chaplin), and the captain (David Morrissey) of the soldiers billeted at the mansion. Eventually, Crusoe (named after the character in Treasure Island) grows too big to be kept in a barrel or a bathtub and Angus is forced to release him into the Loch.

Replace Crusoe with a whale and you have Free Willy. Replace him with a dog and you have Lassie. The Water Horse follows in the tradition of movies like these, in which the bond between a boy and his pet opens the child to new possibilities. Because of Crusoe, Angus is able to overcome his grief over the death of his father and re-connect with his family and those around him. Crusoe gives him a reason to reach out and someone to care for other than himself. The obvious thing that makes this unique is the way in which it weaves one of the world's most enduring modern-day legends into its text. Take away the Loch Ness Monster aspect of the movie and this would feel less fresh and more familiar.

The cast is comprised primarily of recognizable faces but there are no big stars. Although the movie is the product of an American director (Jay Russell) and was funded with American money, it was filmed primarily in New Zealand with British actors. Cinema buffs will recognize Emily Watson, David Morrissey, and Ben Chaplin, all of whom provide effective (but certainly not award-worthy) turns. Alex Etel, the young act who plays Angus, is a relative unknown, although some viewers may remember him from Danny Boyle's fable, Millions. The movie's real star is Crusoe, but he's entirely the product of a graphic artist's keyboard.

It's getting increasingly harder for any family feature to compete with the assembly-line productions coming out of Disney and Dreamworks, so I'm glad to report that this is at least as good as any of them. The inclusion of the dinosaur-like monster is a great way to up the "coolness" factor of the movie, and it has more heart than one might initially suppose. Like most fables, the story is a little obvious but that won't be a problem for the target audience and it doesn't diminish the emotional impact. The Water Horse is solid family entertainment of an unusual kind.

Water Horse, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2007-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1