The Water Horse uses the infamous “Surgeon’s Photograph” of the Loch Ness Monster as a starting point for this fanciful tale about the mysterious creature. Framed by a present-day storyteller (Brian Cox), the movie flashes back to wartime Scotland where a lonely boy named Angus (Alex Etel) discovers a large, iridescent rock on the beach. When it hatches later that night, he is surprised to find a strange animal squirming and squawking about.
Angus enlists the help of his older sister (Priyanka Xi) to keep his secret from their mother, Anne (Emily Watson), who works as the housekeeper at a large manor. The task is made more difficult by the arrival of a new handyman, Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), and a regiment of soldiers who are to be billeted there. Mowbray, however, learns of Angus’s new pet, which the boy has named Crusoe, and thinks that it is a rare water horse. He explains that only one water horse can exist at a time and that it lays a single egg before dying. Mowbray teams with Angus to protect Crusoe, but its rapid growth makes it increasingly harder to conceal.
As an adventure film, The Water Horse can pull off a heart-pounding adrenaline rush. Crusoe memorably faces off with the army cook’s bulldog during an officers’ dinner party, and there’s a lot of scrambling to find a hiding place that’s big and wet enough for the slippery animal. When Angus and Mowbray finally lead it into a nearby lake, new problems threaten Crusoe’s safety, including the army’s artillery, which has been set up to protect against German attacks. And far from being a cuddly creature of the deep, the water horse looks like it crawled out of the Jurassic Park reject pile, snapping at anyone it doesn’t take a liking to.
The best stories do more than excite though, and the film serves its action with plenty of heart. Behind Angus’s desire to protect his odd pet is his own need to be loved and nurtured. Though he is well cared for by his hard working mum, he daydreams of his father’s return from war, undeterred by the news that his ship was lost in battle more than a year ago. Mowbray and the regiment’s self-assured leader, Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), temporarily stand in as father figures while also trying to win Anne’s affections.
The key ingredient to this picture is its cast, and it’s young Etel who leads the pack. After charming his way into everyone’s heart in his first film, Millions, he again brings a somewhat forlorn, single-parented boy to vivid and tender life. His acting is precise but absent of the polish and pretension that often strips young characters of their vulnerability. Even when he stubbornly holds his ground, he looks ready to squeeze out a few tears or break into a wide, toothy smile, depending on how the wind blows. The Water Horse never feels like the cloying, coming of age film it could be and Angus is made not just tolerable but wholly endearing because of Etel’s performance.
The adult actors contribute enormously as well. Watson, who seems to be taking on a lot of wartime mother roles lately (War Horse, The Book Thief, Little Boy, Testament of Youth, even the Queen Mother in A Royal Night Out), is beautifully understated as Angus’s firm but devoted mother. The always unassuming Chaplin also keeps himself a step behind Etel, which gives his character an even more paternal presence. Morrissey, by contrast, strides on board and plants his foot down. He begins as the caricature of a man who needs to be in charge but softens as the film goes on.
Cox’s avuncular presence meanwhile is comforting but unnecessary. Angus’s story stands on its own merits, even if the narrative drags at times, and doesn’t need the intrusion of a narrator or perky American tourists. If it’s color and a sense of detached wonder that the filmmakers are looking for, they make up for it with some picturesque shots of Loch Ness (or Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand, where the movie was filmed).
This trailer makes the film look like a wacky kids’ action movie. It’s much better than that.
Alt Title: The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
Prod: Jay Russell, Douglas Rae, Robert Bernstein, Barrie M. Osborne
Dir: Jay Russell
Writer: Robert Nelson Jacob
Cast: Alex Etel, Ben Chaplin, Emily Watson, David Morrissey, Priyanka Xi, Brian Cox, Craig Hall, Erroll Shand, Joel Tobeck
Time: 112 min
Country: United Kingdom, United States