Rarely has a movie experience taken me to places in my childhood I have long since forgotten. Many movies make me wish I were a child again, but few films make me feel like a child. The story that unfolds in “The Water Horse,” however, transported me back to my elementary school library, where I would spend “book time” reading of the world’s many mysteries, caught up in legends like that of the Loch Ness monster.
Set during World War II, “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep” is the imaginative story based upon the book by Dick King-Smith (author of Babe: The Gallant Pig), which illuminates the mystery surrounding Loch Ness. As the opening titles roll, we learn that “A true tale it is.”
Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel) is a Scottish lad who lives with his mother, Anne (Emily Watson), and sister, Kirstie (Priyanka Xi), at the large estate where his mother is a caretaker. Young Angus is deathly afraid of the water, but always drawn to it ”hypnotized by it, both for its mystery and the way it sparks memories of his father away serving in the Royal Navy.
Gathering shells and rocks along the shore, Angus stumbles upon a large and curious-looking rock. It’s not a rock, however, but an egg holding a magical creature (brought to life for the screen by the special effects team behind “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”).
Angus is determined to care for the creature ”and keep it a secret. This proves difficult as the creature, who Angus names Crusoe, grows exponentially. Kirstie quickly discovers Crusoe and joins in keeping the amazing animal a secret. The strange handyman, Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), who arrives to help Anne care for the estate, also discovers Crusoe. He imparts to Angus the story of the Water Horse. Yet as Crusoe grows, it is apparent to all three that the guest bathtub and even the courtyard fountain won’t suffice as hiding places. The only option is the depths of the local loch.
There is far more to the story however, which is adapted by Robert Nelson Jacobs (Oscar nominee for “Chocolat”). The setting itself makes for brilliant storytelling. As the estate is in close proximity to several of Scotland’s sea-connecting lochs, it becomes the headquarters for an artillery regiment tasked with preventing German U-boats from invading Scotland. Far from the frontlines however, Capt. Hamilton (David Morrissey) and his men seem to be chasing geese more than anything. Nevertheless, the military presence at the estate catalyzes unfolding secrets.
Though the movie has the typical hijinks of an out-of-place animal taken into a very human environment, the story’s heart holds themes of father and son, nurturer and nurtured. How do you let go of those you have cared for and nurtured? And how do those nurtured respond after being released into the wilds, bombarded by the world’s pains?
Director Jay Russell (“My Dog Skip,” “Tuck Everlasting”) brings to screen a magnificent story, whose characters capture your heart as soon as you meet them. The tale is wonderfully narrated by Brian Cox, whose voice, combined with the remarkable score by James Newton Howard (Oscar nominee for “The Village”), transports the audience to Scotland and into this most extraordinary of stories.
Although I expected a film more resembling, well, “Babe,” I was quite delighted to discover that “The Water Horse: The Legend of the Deep” spun a yarn with much more depth than what has been promoted.
Dale Stinson is a writer and church youth leader. He lives with his wife and two young boys in Spring Hill, Tenn.
MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of action and peril, scary images, mild language, and brief smoking and drinking. Reviewer’s Note: Because of the war elements and scary action sequences, I would not recommend this film for children under eight years old.
Director: Jay Russell
Writer: Robert Nelson Jacobs (from the book The Water Horse by Dick King-Smith)
Cast: Anne MacMorrow: Emily Watson; Lewis Mowbray: Ben Chaplin; Angus MacMorrow: Alex Etel; Capt. Hamilton: David Morrissey; Kirstie: Priyanka Xi; Sgt. Walker: Joel Tobeck; Sgt. Strunk: Marshall Napier; Lt. Wormsley: Erroll Shand; Narrator: Brian Cox.