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The Water Horse Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Water Horse Review
    “When the War is over, there could be tourists, excursions. This could put our Loch Ness on the map.”

    “I don't want it on the map! We should leave things the way they are.”

    “If there's a monster in Loch Ness, the world has a right to know.”

    Two young American tourists, enjoying the beauty of rural Scotland, become enthralled when one of the pub locals (played by Brian Cox, slumming it but obviously enjoying it) begins to regale them with a fantastical tale about a young boy who, whilst his father is away in the navy during the Second World War, discovers an egg in the shallow water along the rocky shore that soon hatches out into mystical Water Horse - a single solitary creature that only lays one egg at the point of death, so that the world will only ever one such beastie. Although drawn to the water, the boy, Angus (played by Alex Etal) is actually afraid of it and only through his bond with the ever-growing creature, which he names Crusoe, does he learn to overcome this phobia. But as Crusoe continues to grow at an astonishing rate, it becomes clear that the little bucket in the shed or the bath in the house cannot contain enough water to hide him. However, there is a very convenient loch just a stone's throw away. Nobody will ever see him in there, will they?

    Part coming-of-age saga, part anti-war statement, Water Horse works best as the simple fable of a boy who befriends a monster, leading to dangerous misunderstandings with greedy fortune-hunting grownups and over-zealous military morons - situations that can only be survived if they act together.

    Naturally based on Scottish folklore and the legend of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, Jay Russell's film is unashamedly sentimental and wondrous, yet also aided by a realism of character that this type of thing usually neglects. Based on the book by Babe author Dick King-Smith, The Water Horse inevitably shares some visual and thematic familiarity with the Ted Danson-starring Loch Ness, as well the liberating aquatic joy of Free Willy. But there is a period texture to The Water Horse that is pleasantly refreshing, the World War II uniforms on the British soldiers posted to the banks of the Loch to protect it against potential U-Boat invasion, the quaint, cobblestoned yesteryear village and the wonderful mansion-house that is home to Angus, his mother Anne (Emily Watson), his sister Kirsti (Priyanka Xi) and new handyman-about-the-place Lewis (Ben Chaplin) and the nick-knacks, photographs and paraphernalia that Angus hoards in the work-shed to remind him of his father. In taking the tale back to such a period, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs is able to inject a far less cynical approach to the fantastical friendship between child and creature and allow for the heavier issues of war and sacrifice to add social, moral and emotional complexities to develop.

    Alex (Millions) Etal does a sterling job of putting flesh on the bone of the typical - almost clichéd - part of the estranged young boy befriended by something weird that only he can understand. The role, itself, has a distinct lineage that takes in E.T., Black Beauty and even Stig Of The Dump, but it is also such a timeless and accessible set-up that, when not overly-laboured, can be very affecting. Jay Russell, himself, has embraced the whimsical child/animal bonding concept already in 2000's My Dog Skip. But the popularity of such a plot is down to the fact that the central relationship - small kid needs a father-figure, or just a friend to boost their confidence and find their place in what can be a cruel and ignorant world - is something that most children can relate to, and certainly all parents, sitting beside those same children whilst watching such material, can't help but be touched by. Etal's performance, thankfully, has little of the saccharine that could have dragged it beneath the surface and he is perfectly credible as a boy pining for his father with an attitude of defiance and hopefulness throughout much of the film that, perhaps, represents the British attitude, at large, to the War, itself. His relationship with Chaplin's Lewis is well drawn too. Both characters are initially guarded as far as the other is concerned, and both have secrets that they would rather not share. But it is reassuring, if a little obvious, that these two will also gel together, with the legend-savvy Lewis - something of a man of maritime mystery, himself - able to fill in the folkloric background on the creature that young Angus is harbouring in the shadows. Chaplin does well in a role that could easily be forgettable - grownups are often merely onlookers in this type of thing - but he brings a real sense of gravity and texture to the initially preoccupied Lewis.

    The other characters are also surprisingly well-etched. Commanding the Army brigade installing gun-batteries on the coast as well as a vast net to trap enemy subs within the Loch is familiar TV-face David Morrissey. One of those actors who is a natural at playing down-to-earth, believable people with series such as Blackpool and Cape Wrath to his name, Morrissey is also pretty adept at interpreting roles from past eras. Recent parts in The Other Boleyn Girl and Sense And Sensibility ground his more sneering tendencies and his cocky, brazen turn as SAS super-trooper Andy McNab in The One That Got Away now seems like a very distant memory. Here, as Capt. Hamilton - a man whose bravado is tempered by his own command thinking that he sought this remote posting as a way to avoid actual combat - he vies for the attentions of Angus' mother with the more roguish Lewis. But his very presence at the Loch could spell unwitting disaster for the fully-grown Crusoe as impromptu gunnery practice violently proves. And, for her part, Emily Watson acquits herself well without it being too much of a stretch to play a proud, but lonely woman struggling to find the courage to tell her son something that may break his heart, with the likes of period dramas Angela's Ashes and The Mill On The Floss to her credit.

    A character in his own right, Crusoe's noble Water Horse begins as cute and playful. His recurring sparring match with Churchill, the bulldog (what else would he be called?), is played for slapstick in an almost Tom And Jerry style, although you just know that the squat little mutt is going to get the shock of his life before long. Embodying innocence perhaps even more so than Angus, Crusoe is the watery soul of the story, his own pining for the open sea perversely mimicking the boy's longing for his father to return from it. And, as with every entry in this crowded stable, the time will come for an agonising decision to be made. But, as much as Russell's movie treads familiar water, it never feels overly patronising, or cloned. It is also nice to see that some acknowledged Nessie facts are recognised too, such as the infamously bogus “long-necked photo” being slyly riffed on.

    The effects, overall, complement the movie, with nothing literally standing out and crying aloud that it is a CG creation. Crusoe, himself, looks terrific. There is the usual humanistic tendency for emotional expression - happy, sad, panicked, excitable - but the interaction that he has with the live-action characters and the environment around him is exemplary. Water-effects, such as the triumphant sub-aqua ride that Angus is taken on in Loch Ness, are brilliantly rendered with a clinical eye for detail and realism. The eerie sight of underwater wrecks and some strange standing stones add a further element of enchantment to a story that really dwells perhaps too much in the war-time drama sphere of things. There are not only great shots of Crusoe playfully leaping from the water in jubilation, but also frantically evading explosions and shrapnel that pummel his body in vicious shockwaves. And credit must go to the surprisingly sudden savagery that the Water Horse can exhibit - with some smart boat capsizing and a truly vigorous shaking of one villain standing out. Although the climax may smack rather heavily of narrative convenience, it is still undeniably exciting and had my son, for one, perched on the edge of his seat with his heart in his mouth.

    It seems odd that Jay Russel and Co. decamped to New Zealand to lens their Scottish fable when the real location is just as bewitching, mysterious and beautiful, but this does tend to be the order of the day for many such productions. Even so, the locales they utilise look appropriately haunting and mystical, yet with that lushly damp believability that marks them out as distinctly genuine places, rather than CG-augmented landscapes. Oliver Stapleton's cinematography revels in fantastic vistas of far off hills and shorelines across vast, reflective water. But it is the placement of Crusoe and Angus cruising through miles of the picturesque Loch, with castles and promontories featuring exquisitely in the foreground of a jaw-droppingly composed frame. James Newton Howard provides a wonderfully lyrical score, too. It may play up the strong emotional undercurrents but it still fits the tale superbly and is tremendously evocative of the Scottish setting without being too clichéd.

    I have to admit that I made a mistake with this movie. Not being familiar with the original book, I sort of read too much into early confrontations, expressions and exchanges between Hamilton and Lewis, and allowed my own imagination to run away with itself. For some reason I began to suspect that a scenario a la The Eagle Has Landed was going to ensue and that soon it would be revealed that Loch Ness was crawling with Germans in disguise. Well, let me state here and now, that this most categorically does not happen. Water Horse is, and quite rightly so, just a simple and rather intimate story that doesn't need such twists and convolutions and is, if anything, all the more charming and affecting because of its whimsical, but clear-cut nature and devotion to yore.

    A great family film that is clearly bolstered by a fabulous setting and well-crafted characters who serve the story rather simply appear in it.

    Well recommended despite the rather ropey storytelling device that bookends it.