January 10, 2008

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The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (PG)
A lonely boy finds an egg that grows up to be the Loch Ness monster in The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, a sweet adventure tale set during World War II and starring Alex Etel, the little boy who helped to make Millions such a charmer.

Angus (Etel) is a serious boy who clings to the idea that his soldier father will soon be home even though, as we can tell from looks between his mother (Emily Watson) and sister (Priyanka Xi), his dad probably isn’t returning. He spends his days collecting oddities and bringing them back to his father’s workshop at the Scottish manor where his family lives. One day, an afternoon at the shore brings not only a bucket of sea shells but also a large muddy rock-like object that, with a bit of scraping and washing back home, Angus soon figures out is a beautifully colored, football-sized egg. The next time he stops by the workshop, he finds not an egg but pieces of egg shell and sees something scampering between shadowy places. Turns out his egg harbored a waterhorse — as Angus learns from the new handyman at the manor — a rare creature that Angus names Crusoe. Though Angus is eager to make a pet of Crusoe, keeping him safe quickly becomes a difficult job. After Crusoe outgrows the bathtub, Angus reluctantly puts

Crusoe in the nearby Loch Ness. But even that doesn’t secure Crusoe’s safety, what with the soldiers camping on the manor grounds. Some of the soldiers are hunters and all of the soldiers are a part of a mission that involves protecting the Loch from potential German invasion (by way of a seaway), a mission that includes the occasional firing of giant cannons into the lake.

The movie is framed, The Princess Bride-style, by an old man (whose identity you can probably guess just from this review) telling the story of Angus and Crusoe to a pair of young tourists near Loch Ness. Despite this and some other cutesy touches, The Water Horse is charming in the way that live action Disney movies circa Old Yeller are. There is plenty of emotional depth to the story — not only a boy and his pet but also his feelings about his father and the overarching dark cloud of the war. Watson is able to bring some of this to her character, giving her more to do than just be Angus’ mom. Ben Chaplin also gets a bit of dimension in his role as the handyman who quickly becomes a friend to Angus and his family. The handyman comes into the movie looking like a drifter but we quickly figure out there’s a lot more to him than first suspected.

The real star in this movie, of course, is Etel. He played a boy with a dead parent in Millions too and is able to convey a realistic sadness and confusion while still having a kid personality. Whether he’s deep in a funk or expressing ecstatic joy with Crusoe (who is eventually big enough to give Angus a soaring ride across the lake), Etel gives us believable emotions and helps to sell the magical qualities of a movie that, without Etel, might have seemed gloomy and pokey. Solidly aimed at a kid audience (kids old enough not to be frightened by scenes of bombing the lake and by the giant CGI animal Crusoe eventually becomes), The Water Horse is a charming yarn. B

Rated PG for some action/peril, mild language and brief smoking. Directed by Jay Russell and written by Robert Nelson Jacobs (from a novel by Dick King-Smith), The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is an hour and 51 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures.