"The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep" was released to U.S. audiences on Christmas 2007, and what a present it was for the relatively few families who noticed it amid all the holiday hoopla and hectic schedules. By now, the film has made back most of its modest 45 million dollar investment, but it's really deserving of a wider audience. With a two-disc Special Edition and a Blu-ray release scheduled for April 8, that might soon happen.
The cover of the Special Edition shows a young boy in a rowboat with a Jurassic-looking monster rising from the water behind him, along with a bit of stardust sprinkled in the air to suggest that something magical is happening. That's not false advertising. Though I missed seeing it the end of last year, and although it was overshadowed by Disney's "Enchanted," I'd have to say now that "The Water Horse" was one of the best family films to come out in 2007.
Fans of "E.T." will warm to this one because it has that same time-honored formula that drove Spielberg's classic: put a boy who's feeling isolated because of a move or an absent loved one or father figure in close proximity with a creature, and whether it's "Air Bud" or that "Call home" cutie-pie, you know it's going to help the kid cope with his own difficult reality. But this film, based on the children's book by Dick King-Smith, also has moments that will remind fans of "Whale Rider" and "Free Willy."
Mostly, though, "The Water Horse" is a warm-hearted origin story that gives you the "truth" behind the legend of the Loch Ness monster. Children familiar with "The Princess Bride" will recognize the frame, this time with the story being told by an old man in a pub to a couple of young tourists. But once we go backwards in time to World War II, this film by Jay Russell ("My Dog Skip," "Tuck Everlasting," "Ladder 49") uses the wartime atmosphere to full advantage, weaving a rich and evocative story of life on the home-front with a nostalgic coming-of-age tale that has humor, adventure, peril, and pathos. ("The Water Horse" is rated PG for "some action/peril, mild language, and brief smoking.")
Children three generations removed from the war will find it almost hard to believe that one morning a child could have the run of the Scottish manor his father was a handyman at and his mother watched over in the absence of the Lord, and the next morning British troops would roll in and set up camp. An army cook and his mean bulldog take over the kitchen, officers sleep inside the house, and soldiers live in tents with campfires burning on the manor's manicured lawn. What's worse for the boy is that a new civilian handyman named Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin) has come to take up residence in the handyman's quarters the boy had been using as a clubhouse since his father went off to serve in the Navy. In that room, young Angus (Alex Etel) had kept track of the days left on his father's tour of duty, and had sought refuge from this friendly invasion. But there's something else, something much more important he had hidden there. Angus had found an egg-shaped rock in a tide pool and had brought it to the shed, where it produced a little Plesiosaur-looking creature that had my children "ooing" and "ahhing" over how cute it was. With seal-like flippers, Shrek-like horns, and more personality than you'd expect from a Hollywood creation, this realistic-looking guy quickly stole every scene he was in. Boys and girls will shriek with delight as Angus's sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi) goes to take a bath when we know darned well what's playing in the tub.
There's plenty of comedy in the first act, and Crusoe (as Angus names him) hooks children as unexpectedly as two old codgers in the second act who will tie into a much-larger creature. As more people learn about Angus's "pet," we do too--especially when Lewis tells us it might be the Water Horse of ancient Celtic legend that his grandfather told him about. It's a creature so rare that only one can live in the world at a time, and then it produces an egg that will give birth to its successor.
But the loch has been transformed by wartime. Now there's a submarine net at the place where it merges with the ocean. A puffy and pompous Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey) has set his cannons at the hill overlooking the loch and his sights on Angus's mother. A subtle competition arises between the privileged commander and the lowly handyman who, it turns out, had already served on the front lines and was honorably discharged. Though the plot isn't complex, there are enough interesting strands to keep adults as entertained as the children.
The cinematography and special effects are also very good, and the filmmakers do a fine job of blending that ancient Celtic legend with the more modern, sensational one that has sprung up surrounding the Loch Ness Monster. On one of the bonus features, naturalist Adrian Shine talks about how the "Jurassic Park" version of the beast first got "legs" in the spring of 1933, when a woman claimed to have spotted a monster and the local newspaper printed a story. That famous photo of Nessie? Faked, Shine says, and proceeds to tell us the story of the locals who tried to have a bit of fun with the world and create a tourist boom in the process. To Russell's credit, he manages to weave in some of that local lore so subtly that it doesn't intrude at all on the coming-of-age story, the boy-and-his-pet story, the two-suitors-for-one-woman story--or even the "Whale Rider" moments that come when the boy who's afraid of water faces his fears, or the "Free Willy" moments that arise when those big guns start firing.
LAST PARAGRAPH SPOILER:
Younger children may need to huddle close by an adult during those moments of peril, but parents should know that this is not a sad or traumatic film. Letting your children watch this isn't a Bambi's mother or Old Yeller experience. It's more uplifting than that.
Viewers can choose between the 1.33:1 pan-and-scan version or the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen of the original theatrical presentation. I watched in widescreen, and though the print is dark in many places, it's never so murky that you can't see what's going on. I can't report that the colors are brilliant and vibrant, because it's actually a drab palette that's more befitting a wartime film and one shot in the moody atmosphere of Loch Ness. There's really not that much grain, though, and nice edge delineation. "The Water Horse" is mastered in High Definition.
The featured audio is an English Dolby Digital 5.1, with an optional audio in French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. When the cannons kick in, the speakers really jump. There may not be a really wide spread across the front speakers, but neither does it seem as if the sounds hover close by their sources and never fill the air. There's also a nice balance of bass and treble, and between the FX and dialogue.
There are some really nice extras here. Though the eight deleted scenes aren't much (just seven minutes, total), six behind-the-scenes featurettes are really well done. Russell acts like a tour guide, popping up in each one, but you'll also meet plenty of other interesting characters, among them Shine and a fellow named Steve Feltham, who lives in a trailer and has staked out Loch Ness for the past 15 years, trying to get a picture of the fabled monster. There are still plenty of believers, though it's interesting to learn that practically no one believes now that the creature will have the long neck of a Plesiosaur. It might even look like a big catfish, Feltham says. The features are broken up into Myths & Legends, The Story, The Characters, Setting the Scene, Water Works, Creating the Water Horse, and Creating Crusoe. For fans of behind-the-scenes footage, there's plenty here that shows you how the "magic" was created--lots of blue screen and models to see.
"The Water Horse" is a warm-hearted, rousing period film that gives us the best boy-and-his-secret pairing since "E.T." The special effects and WWII atmosphere are memorable, and as rare as we're told Water Horses are, it's almost as rare for a film like this to come along which will appeal to all members of the family--even teens, 'tweens, and adults.