The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

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Family films that won't make adults gag are always in short supply, so a pleasing British fantasy, "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep," is a welcome addition to the holiday season.

While it boasts a lower profile than many other Christmas releases, it might catch on with parents who want to take their kids to a movie that the entire family will actually enjoy. Nifty special effects and a first-rate British cast elevate this production.

Director Jay Russell showed his talent for intelligent family fare with "My Dog Skip" a few years ago. This film is more ambitious; the script by Robert Nelson Jacobs (adapted from a book by Dick King-Smith) spins a more complex narrative than most children's films.

The movie begins with an older man in a pub (the splendid Brian Cox) regaling a younger couple with a magical story that began during World War II. The film then flashes back to young Angus (Alex Etel) discovering a strange encrusted egg on the beach near his country house in Scotland. He takes it home, and it hatches, bringing forth the title character, who looks like an equine version of E.T.

Angus' father has gone off to war, and his mother (Emily Watson) is a bit distracted because a local regiment is billeted at her estate to watch for German submarines. Angus and his older sister (Priyanka Xi), with the help of a taciturn handyman (Ben Chaplin), try to conceal the water horse, which grows at alarming speed. When the army finally discovers the creature, Angus and his confederates must engineer its escape.

The script admirably melds whimsical fantasy, rambunctious comedy (much of it provided by a bulldog that is the water horse's chief nemesis), suspense, and poignant family drama. There's even a hint of romance, as Watson's Anne is an object of attraction for both the handyman and the platoon captain (David Morrissey). The film gets a boost from the classy cast. Watson demonstrates her innate warmth, while Chaplin radiates movie star charisma. Morrissey, who co-starred with Watson in "Hilary and Jackie," lends able support. But it's Etel who anchors the movie. Unlike some American child actors, Etel is winsome without being cloyingly cute. He holds the screen as commandingly as the young Roddy McDowall, who might have played the part if the film had been made in the 1940s.

The film also benefits from the handsome cinematography of Oliver Stapleton, who takes advantage of the spectacular settings. (Although a few scenes were shot in Scotland, most of the movie was filmed in New Zealand.) While there's nothing groundbreaking about "Water Horse," it provides a couple of hours of soothing escapism.

THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP
Columbia
Revolution Studios, Walden Media, Beacon Pictures
Credits:
Director: Jay Russell
Screenwriter: Robert Nelson Jacobs
Based on the book by: Dick King-Smith
Producers: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae, Barrie M. Osborne, Charlie Lyons
Executive producers: Charles Newirth, Jay Russell
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton
Production designer: Tony Burrough
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: John Bloomfield
Editor: Mark Warner
Cast:
Anne MacMorrow: Emily Watson
Angus MacMorrow: Alex Etel
Lewis Mowbray: Ben Chaplin
Capt. Hamilton: David Morrissey
Kirstie MacMorrow: Priyanka Xi
Sgt. Strunk: Marshall Napier
Sgt. Walker: Joel Tobeck
Lt. Wormsley: Erroll Shand
Old Angus: Brian Cox
Running time -- 111 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
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