Friday, December 28, 2007

Messy Nessie: The Water Horse: A Movie Review

As written back in 1990 by Dick King-Smith, author of Babe: The Gallant Pig of movie fame, The Water Horse is a warm-hearted family fantasy, set in 1930, in which sister Kirstie and brother Angus, their mother, and their grandfather, nicknamed Grumble, conspire to raise and protect from discovery a sea serpent (named Crusoe) hatched from an egg, a huge "mermaid's purse," found by Kirstie on the beach after a storm. The family, abetted on occasional shore leave by their merchant sailor father, stealthily move the beast as it grows from the bathtub to fish pond to small lake and finally to Loch Ness, where it is finally sighted and photographed and becomes the basis of the modern Loch Ness Monster craze.

In the hands of director Jay Russell and the special effects guys at Walden Media, that sweet fantasy becomes The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep and is transformed into somewhat of a spectacle film--with emphasis on the "Legend of the Deep" portion of the movie title. The plot is reset in World War II Scotland, and younger brother Angus, rather than sister Kirstie, becomes the focal character. Angus' Royal Navy father has been lost at sea, and the manor grounds are filled with billeted soldiers preparing to defend the mouth of the nearby loch from Nazi submarines. The soft-hearted but grumpy grandad who helps care for the tiny water horse is replaced by the character of handyman Lewis Mowbrey, who vies romantically with the British commander for the affections of the children's widowed mother.

The midsection of the film offers the interesting mix of characters a chance for some humor, as in the scene in which the handyman hides the little water horse inside a toilet, sitting on the lid and casually discussing plumbing repair with the unsuspecting mum in the bathroom where the little beastie has been kept in the bathtub. In another scene the ever-voracious Crusoe spills a rubbish bin full of kitchen scraps, messily gobbles up the garbage, and emits a satisfied belch. Another kid-pleasing scene offers the army cook's bulldog, appropriately named Churchill, a chance to play the slapstick heavy as he chases the fleeing water horse through the manor house and runs down a long banquet table during a very formal officers' dinner party, while Angus tries to rescue his slippery little charge underneath.

As in King-Smith's plot line, the beast's huge appetite and rapid growth force the reluctant children to sneak him into the deep waters of Loch Ness, which provides the gorgeous backdrop for the movie's signature scene, when deep-water-averse Angus takes a literally breathtaking underwater ride on Crusoe. Problems ensue, of course, as a couple of garrulous fishermen hook the water horse and live to tell the tale--at the local pub and anywhere else they can find an ear. Things turn nasty when accounts of a monster in Loch Ness appear in the local papers. Some of the billeted soldiers set forth for a midnight monster hunt in a military torpedo boat, and the artillerymen begin firing at what they believe to be an enemy sub entering the loch. Angus and Lewis rush lochside to try to save Crusoe, and amidst a roaring storm and blasts of artillery fire the movie reaches its thrilling conclusion.

Although the story line has a few weak points, its U.K. cast is excellent, projecting their roles perfectly without overplaying their scenes, in that admirable way Brits have. For no apparent reason the script writer adds a frame story, which gives able Scots actor Brian Cox, as "old Angus", a chance to begin and end the movie as he tells his tale to a young couple visiting Loch Ness. The movie's setting is beautiful, with internal scenes shot in Ardkinglas, a 100-year-old Scottish manor house, and external scenes shot on location in New Zealand, which apparently looks more like Scotland than modern Scotland does.

This is a admirable family film, with no slapstick pratfalls, no wisecracking insults, and even the local yokels treated with a modicum of respect. Alex Etel as the young Angus is superb, and the water horse is an appropriately appealing baby and an awesome Loch Ness monster as he grows. Rated PG, the movie lasts 111 minutes. At the end of my showing the audience of mostly preteens broke into spontaneous applause, as did the two eight-year-olds who saw the movie with me.

For kids who want to know more about the famous lake monster, there is Jacqueline Gorman's The Loch Ness Monster (X Science: An Imagination Library Series), or Peggy Parks' The Loch Ness Monster (Monsters), both of which cover the mythology, mystery, history, and scientific studies of the reputed monster in Loch Ness for middle readers. For younger children Richard Brassey's Nessie the Loch Ness Monster provides a humorous and less skeptical view of the ever-popular Nessie.

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