A creature lurks beneath the waves of Loch Ness … and a relatively charming and unassuming family film lurks within the flood of high-profile movies hitting the multiplex this Christmas. Unlike just about every other flick coming out in this highly competitive season, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep has no major stars and nothing resembling Oscar buzz. What it does have is a simple desire to entertain, and just enough heart to see it through a rough storytelling patch or two.
"A true tale it is …" So says an opening title card, and it sets the right folk-tale tone for the movie that follows. It begins with a couple of tourists entering a pub in a Scottish town near the famous lake where the Loch Ness Monster is said to live, and when they start talking about the famous photo of the creature taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson, a local pubgoer (Brian Cox) emerges from behind a newspaper to tell them that the story behind the photo is more complex than they know. And then he begins to tell them the tale.
In real life, the photo in question was taken in 1934. But the tale told by the man at the pub takes place several years later, during World War II, and it concerns a boy named Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel) who, we are told, is "drawn to the water but deathly afraid of it." If Angus finds the water both appealing and terrifying, it may be because his father Charlie (Craig Hall) left home to join the Royal Navy before the tale begins—and there is a very strong possibility he might never come back.
For now, though, Angus lives with his mother Anne (Emily Watson) and his big sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi) in a house not far from the loch. And one day, while poking around by the beach, he comes across something that looks like a giant rock—but of course it isn't a rock, it's an egg, and shortly after he takes the egg home, it hatches, revealing an odd aquatic creature inside. Angus tries to keep the creature hidden in his father's work shed, but the creature's incredibly rapid growth—and the fact that his mother has just hired a handyman named Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin) and has given him the shed to live in—make that impossible.
Fortunately, it turns out the normally distant and taciturn Mowbray brightens up a bit when he learns about the creature, and he tells Angus and Kirstie (who is also in on the secret) that the creature is probably a "water horse." Only one of these mythical beasts can exist at a time, and just as the phoenix rises from the ashes of its forebear, each "water horse" lays an egg before it dies, to keep the species going.
If Angus and company only had to keep the "water horse" secret from his mother, that would be challenge enough. But the MacMorrow home has been commandeered by the army, as led by Captain Hamilton (Watson's Hilary and Jackie co-star David Morrissey), and the place is crawling with soldiers—soldiers who have imposed new rules on who is allowed to have snacks and when, soldiers who have too keen an interest in hunting, and soldiers who are all too eager to look for Nazi U-boats in the loch. This last detail becomes a problem when the "water horse" gets to be so big that it can no longer stay in the house, but must be sent back into the lake.
The Water Horse is directed by Jay Russell, and in some ways it plays like a fusion of his earlier films My Dog Skip, which concerned a boy and his pet dog, and Tuck Everlasting, which concerned a young woman who discovers a family of immortals. But the film has even stronger parallels with the work of other filmmakers: in its portrayal of a boy who secretly befriends a supernatural creature, it is reminiscent of films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial; in its portrayal of a boy who goes for rides on an animal's back against a watery backdrop, it brings films like The Black Stallion to mind; and in its critical portrayal of the military and the intrusive, destructive power that it wields against an innocent "monster," it evokes films like The Iron Giant.
As Angus, Alex Etel brings the same childlike enthusiasm, leavened by sadness, that he brought to Millions. And Watson is all too convincing as the weary, jaded mother who simply doesn't have the strength or spirit to believe in magic any more.
The storytelling, alas, falters in places. We are told at the beginning that Angus is afraid of the water, but when he finally takes the plunge, there is little if any sense of the fear being overcome; instead, it seems as though the filmmakers forgot all about it. At times an extra shot or two would have added to the characters' believability; for example, when Angus is called away from the shed by his mother at bedtime, he simply leaves, and the next thing we know, he is waking up in the morning, but he doesn't look back over his shoulder at the magical creature he is leaving behind, and there is no sense that he might have stayed up at night pondering his new pet.
The film also makes awkward use of the flashback structure, shoehorning clips of the old pubgoer into the story in ways that break its momentum. (The first time this happens, it is so he can ask the tourists if he is boring them with his story—and since his question breaks the spell somewhat, he really shouldn't have asked.)
Of course, quibbles like these might not bother the children who are this film's main target audience. For them, The Water Horse offers some slapstick humor (as a bulldog belonging to one of the soldiers chases the "water horse" around the house), some heartfelt emotion, a few scares, and a thrilling glimpse of the world beneath the waves. And while it might not get much further than this basic truism, the film does affirm the basic message of the best kind of fairy tale: as with water, so with other things: there is more to this world than what we see on the surface.Discussion starters
- The film calls itself a "true tale," but it is obviously not historical or based on what we normally think of as "based on a true story." Is it still "true," in a sense? How do stories—including fairy tales—tell the "truth"? What about, say, Jesus' parables?
- Have you ever had a really big secret? Were you able to tell anyone? Who? How did they react? Have you ever discovered someone else's secret? What did you do?
- Captain Hamilton briefly tries to make Angus act like a soldier, telling him, "You are aimless. We're going to give you some purpose, make a soldier out of you." Why would being a soldier give a person "purpose"? Where do you find purpose?
- In a particular moment of despair, Anne tells her son, "There is no magic. … There's just the war, and death, and people going insane." How would you answer her? Is there "magic" in the world? Where does it come from?
- Does "magic" give you purpose? Is it possible to have purpose without some sort of "magic"? (Think, for example, of the "Deep Magic" in the Narnia stories.)
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is rated PG for some action/peril (the creature dodges artillery that is fired into Loch Ness), mild language (the occasional "hell" or "oh my God," at least one reference to "Jesus, Mary and Joseph") and brief smoking.
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