An enchanting tale of friendship and evolving relationships, "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep" engagingly grafts coming-of-age movie chestnuts onto Scottish folklore. Though most of the narrative won't surprise anyone who has seen "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" or numerous similar stories, director Jay Russell and screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs create a realistic world in which the fantastical is credible.
In a present-day Scottish pub, a young American couple looking at the infamous photo of the Loch Ness monster is offered the true story behind the legend by a charming old man (Brian Cox). They bite and the man quickly whisks them back to World War II with the tale of a young boy named Angus MacMorrow struggling with his sailor-father's absence.
Simultaneously scared and fascinated by the water, Angus (Alex Etel) discovers a large, barnacle-covered egg in a tide pool at the seashore. He smuggles the egg back to the stately manor where he lives with his sister, Kirstie (Priyanka Xi), and mother, Anne (Emily Watson), the head housekeeper. Perched on a large loch, the home is empty save for a small domestic staff.
That changes when an army regiment, led by Capt. Hamilton (David Morrissey), arrives to use it as its billeting quarters, and Anne hires a secretive handyman named Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin). The suddenly bustling grounds make it a challenge for Angus to hide his discovery, especially once the egg hatches, releasing an adorably strange sea creature with four flippers and a tail.
Angus bonds with the tiny beast and dubs his new friend Crusoe after being unable to identify its genus or species. Kirstie and Mowbray are unavoidably recruited to help in hiding Crusoe after discovering him in an upstairs tub, and the latter tells the children the myth of the water horse, a mysterious creature of which legend dictates only one exists at a time.
Though the duo of Angus and Crusoe initially conjures images of "Beany and Cecil" ("Help, Cecil! Help!" "I'm comin', Beany-boy!"), the relationship deepens as the boy attempts to fill the void left by his father. Etel is excellent as Angus, helping to ground the film in the uncertainty of wartime. Watson also shines as the protective mother unable to salve her son's emotional wounds. Morrissey and Chaplin give depth to their roles as men from opposite ends of the British social spectrum innately pitted against each other.
Best known for family-friendly fare such as "My Dog Skip" and "Tuck Everlasting," Russell, along with director of photography Oliver Stapleton, shot the film primarily in New Zealand but manages to beautifully evoke the Scottish coast and the 1940s. The visuals comfortably balance warmly nostalgic hues with the harsher shades of the film's more serious themes and action sequences.
Adapted by Jacobs from the Dick King-Smith ("Babe: The Gallant Pig") book, "The Water Horse" treads carefully on issues of loss and at times may be too intense for small children. Crusoe morphs rather quickly from cuddly urchin to fierce sea monster, and likewise, some of the film's shifts in tone are equally jarring, moving from kitchen-sink realism to slapstick, high adventure and back again.
Still, given the lack of intelligent, nonpandering family films, "The Water Horse" provides substantive entertainment. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution.
"The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep." MPAA rating: PG for some action/peril, mild language and brief smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. In general release.