A Holiday Gift 'Horse' That's Worth a Look

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

If you're reading this, it means you've reached that point on Christmas Day when, by dint of overgifting, grating family dynamics, sheer boredom (see: family dynamics) or just being an unrepentant secular humanist, a movie is in order. Something not too long, not too short, not too violent, but not too namby-pamby, either.

You've seen "Enchanted." "Bee Movie?" Me h. But you've got to get out of this living room before you start hitting the eggnog and say something you'll regret. Please, Hollywood, for the love of all that's holy, give us an excuse to sit in a dark room without looking at each other!

Look no further, desperate revelers: "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep" is here to save the day on its slithery but beguiling back. Part gentle-hearted fable, part action adventure, this fable of Scotland's storied Loch Ness and its most famous denizen may not be the perfect family Christmas movie -- some potentially terrifying material in the third act might put off little ones or the easily frightened -- but it's close. For viewers familiar with Walden Media, it might be enough to say that "The Water Horse" comes courtesy of that company, which as the producer of such superb family entertainments as "Holes," "Because of Winn-Dixie," "Charlotte's Web" and "The Bridge to Terabithia" can usually be counted on for movies of taste, warmth and humanistic values.

"The Water Horse" succeeds on all those counts. Based on a novel by Dick King-Smith, who also wrote "Babe: The Gallant Pig," the movie tells the story of Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel), a young boy living on the coast of Scotland during World War II. Angus's father has long been away with the navy, leaving Angus with his mother, Anne (Emily Watson), the housekeeper at a gorgeous country house, and his older sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi).

Lonely and longing for his dad, Angus is on the beach one day when he discovers a strange, iridescent egg. He takes it back to the manor's potting shed, where it hatches a strange, slippery beastie that looks like a tiny dinosaur with seal flippers. Angus names the creature Crusoe, he feeds it potatoes and soon the thing has grown into a full-fledged adolescent sea monster exhibiting all the energy and mischief of its age group.

Meanwhile, a pompous army captain named Hamilton (David Morrissey) has taken over the house with his troops, convinced the Germans are going to invade Scotland through nearby Loch Ness. And a mysterious caretaker named Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin) has arrived on the scene, giving the household a frisson of virile masculine energy worthy of D.H. Lawrence.

That last bit will fly right over the heads of young people, who will surely be enthralled by Angus's comical attempts to hide his fast-growing pet and some equally amusing, mayhem-filled chase scenes through the grand old house. Director Jay Russell ("My Dog Skip," "Tuck Everlasting") has created a rich, mostly tender fairy tale that combines elements of such children's classics as "The Secret of Roan Inish," "E.T." and, when Angus must consider setting his beloved charge loose in the loch, "Born Free."

As enchanting as "The Water Horse" is for children, there's plenty here for adults to appreciate, from Morrissey's quietly hilarious turn as the self-regarding captain to the spectacular Scottish gorges and glens, captured by the dazzling cinematography of Oliver Stapleton. ("The Water Horse" was filmed in New Zealand and at the 100-year-old Ardkinglas House in Scotland.) Admittedly, things take a rather dark turn when Angus's monster -- now a huge, depth-dwelling creature -- runs afoul of Hamilton's trigger-happy men, and "E.T." turns into "Jaws."

Despite those tense and even terrifying interludes, all ends reassuringly in "The Water Horse," which takes one of the world's most enduring and beloved legends and places it within the context of growing up and accepting loss. Combining the best of fantasy and somber reflection, "The Water Horse" is a lovely ride.

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (105 minutes, at AMC Mazza Gallerie and Regal Gallery Place) is rated PG for some action and peril, mild profanity and brief smoking.

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