Ever since Judge Kristin Munson heard there's no such thing as sea monsters, she's been suffering from an empty Ness.
How do you keep a secret this big?
Very easily, apparently, as The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep hit U.S. theaters Christmas day and sank with hardly a trace.
Based on the children's book by Dick King-Smith, the author of Babe: The Gallant Pig, The Water Horse lacks the warm simplicity that made Babe an all-ages crowd-pleaser, but that doesn't spoil the magic.
Facts of the Case
Angus (Alex Etel, Millions) is having a bad summer. His father is off fighting the Nazis, his mother (Emily Watson, Hilary and Jackie) is busy with the military captain (David Morrisey, State of Play) and solders who've commandeered their home, and nobody has any time for him. When an egg he finds at the seashore hatches a creepy wee beastie, he decides to keep it and name it Crusoe.
Crusoe quickly outgrows the upstairs bath, so Angus finds his pet a bigger fish bowl: a little loch by the name of Ness. It's hard enough keeping Crusoe a secret from his family, but it's nigh impossible to hide a 25-foot plesiosaur from the entrepreneurial locals and the garrison of soldiers using the loch for target practice.
An interesting combo of '50s creature feature and "a boy and his ___" films, The Water Horse is a throwback to the intelligent family features of yore. It's cute without being cloying and familiar without piling on the clicheés. It also mercifully rejects the modern kiddie film standards that make those movies a chore. There are no fart jokes, food fights, or crotch shots to cringe through, although it throws the little ones a bone with a wacky chase sequence and a critter belch or two. For the most part, though, it's a misty look back at life on the '40s homefront, but with monster attacks and more explosions.
What sets The Water Horse apart from other animal movies is that it spend almost as much time with the adults as it does with Angus. The newly arrived military clashes with the household staff, and there's a building tension between the educated Captain Hamilton and rugged handyman, Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin The Truth About Cats and Dogs) that's as much about class as it is service record. The larger Crusoe grows, the more intense the action gets, and guns, boats, and bayonets all come into play in the last act, when Angus' pet is attacked by hunters, then mistaken for a Nazi submarine.
Yes, submarine, because the entire plot hinges on the inland, freshwater Loch Ness opening directly onto the Atlantic. That's not the only fact the film gets wrong, but it's the most glaring. Although it plays fast and loose with facts and dates, there are some nice nods to Nessie lore, taking the famous "Surgeon's photograph" and the WWII monster sightings reported by military men at the loch and working them into the mix.
A feature is only as good as its creature, and director Jay Russell wisely got WETA in for the job. This is the same team that created Aslan and a host of other CGI beasts that could stand up to the scrutiny of broad daylight in The Chronicles of Narnia, and Crusoe is no different. By designing Crusoe as a real animal instead of a goofy cartoon, as he grows from pink lizard to long-necked leviathan he becomes a monster that's actually monstrous.
While the overall design is fantastic, dramatic moments are sometimes diluted by shaky animation. In several places, loch, human, and monster look like individual elements dropped onto a background , like an exceptionally well-rendered set of Colorforms. For one of the best and most ambitious sequences, Angus is taken on an underwater Nessie ride, cruising past sunken ships, stone heads, and an Atlantean Stonehenge. Submerged, everything looks perfect, but whenever the action hits the surface, it's obvious that Angus is hugging the air around Crusoe's neck.
The 5.1 audio track is one of the few mixes I've encountered that really utilized all my speakers. Bathtub splashes come from all sides, ominous breathing fills the front speakers, and a low-flying plane vrooms across the setup. James Newton Howard's deceptively pretty Celtic score enhances, but never overwhelms, the action, even in the sonically overloaded finale. Sony has also done everyone a favor by including the widescreen and full-screen version of the The Water Horse on the same side of the first disc, eliminating all the problems of the flipper format. The picture on both versions is near-pristine, although night sequences lose clarity when played on smaller screens or monitors. The muted colors of the wartime costumes look nice in warm lighting palette, but just about everything is upstaged by the scenery, with the equally breathtaking New Zealand subbing for Scotland.
A second disc houses six featurettes and a handful of deleted scenes. For the most part, the cut footage is just bland snippets of redundant material, something you'll watch once to satisfy your curiosity. The featurettes, on the other hand, offer a wealth and variety of behind-the-scenes info broken into 10-15 minute chunks.
Like the film, these features' best selling point is that they absolutely don't talk down to the audience. The "Myths and Legends" segment opens with an illustrated retelling of the water horse myth without changing a gruesome detail, thrilling the folklore freak in me. Other featurettes deal with stunts, the CGI process, actors, script, and the location filming, and don't pad the running time with clips from the finished product. I would have liked a commentary track and a more comprehensive look at Nessie's history but, considering it took a box office pummeling, it's a surprisingly respectable package. Compared to the miserly offerings on the Alvin and the Chipmunks DVD, it's downright spectacular.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's slightly ironic that a movie about a deep water monster feels like it's all about surface. Despite the nearly two-hour runtime, The Water Horse is overstuffed. There's more than enough going on with the sea monster, Angus' family issues, a love triangle, a handyman with a mysterious past, and a clunky narrative device, without throwing a villainous Nessie hunter onto the pile.
The script takes some shortcuts through the classics to hotwire an emotional response and cribs off everyone from Harryhausen to Spielberg to do it. Important facts are brought up in the dialogue but not supported by the action, like the screenwriter decided people had seen enough of these movies to take them for granted. Some things just flat out don't make sense, like how pre-teen Angus looks about 6 years old in flashbacks with his dad, the estate's caretaker, and why his mother is just now getting around to hiring a conveniently swoon-worthy replacement.
The Water Horse is a warm, slightly predictable movie, one that requires the kind of logical leaps of faith in which a little boy can have an intense drowning fantasy in Act I and go blithely rowing across a giant body of water in Act II. Even though the basic story is old hat, the action elements and period drama takes it from "bearable night with the kids" to an entertaining rental for yourself.
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