The Family Filmgoer
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (PG, 105 minutes)
This lovely film sneaked into theaters Christmas Day. It gracefully blends adventure and special effects with an old-fashioned story and is ideal for kids 10 and older. Based in part on the book by Dick King-Smith (who wrote the story of "Babe," the sheepherding piglet), it is about the bond between a lonely, fatherless boy and a mythical water creature in World War II-era Scotland. The legend of the Loch Ness monster is woven intriguingly into the fable.
Although the computer-generated creature (a mix of dragon, dolphin and dinosaur, with puppy-dog eyes) is delightful, it's the human nature of "The Water Horse" that makes the movie such a pleasure. Alex Etel plays young Angus MacMorrow with an everyboy quality; the adult characters are well-acted; and the setting features beautiful mountain and lake scenery. The low-key special effects go wild only at key moments, as when the water horse takes Angus on a spectacular ride on -- and under -- Loch Ness.
Not really for kids younger than 10, the film is told as a flashback from the present day, when an older man (Brian Cox) spins the tale to skeptical American tourists in a pub. Angus's story takes place in 1942, when his mother (Emily Watson) is a housekeeper at a great lodge near Loch Ness. His father is off in the war, and you get the sense that he isn't coming back and that Angus is in denial. Angus finds an egg that hatches into the adorable critter. The new handyman (Ben Chaplin) tells Angus and his sister (Priyanka Xi) that it may be a mythical Celtic water horse. Angus gains courage as he tries to keep the creature safe.
There are scary thunderstorms, a dead deer and the water horse in peril from a dog. The film also features smoking and drinking by adults, mild profanity and sexual innuendo.
For Any Age
"Alvin and the Chipmunks" (PG). A genial, occasionally very funny update of the nearly 50-year-old franchise, the film mixes live-action and computer animation to tell a farcical tale that aims most of its wit at little kids and not grown-ups for a change. Oft-rejected songwriter Dave (Jason Lee) discovers that three talking chipmunks -- mischievous Alvin (voice of Justin Long), studious Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and babyish Theodore (Jesse McCartney) -- have infiltrated his home. He freaks out at first. Then he hears them sing and writes them a hit. The PG covers chipmunk poop and "smelly behind" gags, mild sexual innuendo and the chipmunks briefly wired on coffee.
For Kids 10 and Older
"National Treasure: Book of Secrets" (PG). This sequel (to "National Treasure," PG, 2004) is an overlong scavenger hunt that waters down history, but it moves briskly, and good actors in cool locations lend credibility to the silliness. Armed with factoids and ciphers, the heroes nose around Buckingham Palace, the Library of Congress, Mount Rushmore and the Oval Office. A stranger (Ed Harris) shows treasure hunter Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and his dad (Jon Voight) evidence that their ancestor was part of the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Ben, his dad, his archivist ex-love (Diane Kruger), his computer geek pal (Justin Bartha) and his professor mom (Helen Mirren) all set out to prove otherwise. The film nongraphically reenacts the assassination and includes another gun death, gun and car mayhem, foot chases on shaky scaffolding, floods, sexual innuendo and toilet humor.
PG-13s of Varying Intensity
"The Great Debaters." A debate team from tiny, historically black Wiley College in 1930s Texas eventually takes on Harvard in this inspiring tale -- fictionalized but based on real events and people. Though a bit disjointed, the film is so full of passion, atmosphere and vivid characters that it clicks. Denzel Washington (who directed) plays Mel Tolson, debate coach, poet, professor and activist. Forest Whitaker plays famous preacher James Farmer Sr., whose son (Denzel Whitaker, no relation to Forest Whitaker) is on the team. While driving, Tolson and his star debaters (Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker) witness a lynching. They see the charred victim hanging from a tree, as a crowd of whites, including children, watches. Some middle schoolers won't be ready for this, but it is a fine dramatization of history for teens able to handle it. The film also shows vigilantes threatening a meeting (we later see a man's battered face), drinking, mildly erotic dancing, a subtly implied sexual situation, a knife fight, racial slurs, rare profanity and a pig killed by a car.
"I Am Legend." Will Smith is terrific as a military medical researcher who seems to be the lone immune survivor of a plague that has emptied Manhattan and the world of humans in this nifty, if illogical, sci-fi thriller based on Richard Matheson's novel. He and his dog troll around an artfully decimated Big Apple, gathering supplies, hunting deer and holing up after dark, when rabid zombies transformed by the virus come out. There are flashbacks of the evacuation of Manhattan, with the faces of the infected slamming against car windows, and the implied deaths of the hero's wife and child in the chaos. Gory scenes show him fighting off zombies, and there are bloody animal deaths. A bit much for middle schoolers, the movie will speak existentially to high schoolers.
"Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem." This horror sequel ("Alien vs. Predator," PG-13, 2004, and related video games) will be nearly incomprehensible to the uninitiated, as it gives no back story. Folks in a small Colorado town fall victim to the blood-and-guts lust of rival extraterrestrials who crash nearby. The creatures are based on those from the original "Alien" (R, 1979) and "Predator" (R, 1987) films and their sequels. The slimy, reptilian Alien babies still pop out of the chests of humans whose bodies have been invaded, and the Predator is still a robotic killing machine that can become invisible. This film adds an Alien-Predator hybrid and an uber-Predator. Actors try to make sense of the dialogue when they're not getting impaled, flayed, gutted or having their heads blown off. The film has profanity and sexual innuendo, too. Okay for sci-fi horror buffs 16 and older.
"There Will Be Blood." Daniel Day-Lewis cuts an impressive figure as a Western oil baron consumed by his own greed and ruthlessness at the dawn of the 20th century in this gritty epic, based on the novel "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair. The film, which looks like an old daguerreotype photograph, is riveting. Director Paul Thomas Anderson traces a rivalry between the oilman and a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Paul Dano) as a metaphor for the American soul. The film shows two murders, one a graphic bludgeoning, as well as fatal oil field accidents and a child in jeopardy. It contains sexual innuendo that implies a brothel, a verbal reference to child-beating, profanity, drinking and smoking. For teens 16 and older into serious films.