“The Water Horse” is everything a family film should be.
The Loch Ness Monster meets “Free Willy” in “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.” The film is what family entertainment ought to be, but so rarely is: a ripping good adventure, a parable about childhood and maturity, and a romp.
The film is framed as a tale told to a couple of tourist kids by Scottish raconteur Brian Cox, recalling a fable from his childhood in World War II. The story centers on young Angus MacMorrow (nicely played by Alex Etel, the star of Danny Boyle’s similarly delightful “Millions”). The boy’s father has gone off to war and won’t be returning. Angus’ mother (Emily Watson) frets over the boy’s difficulty in accepting his loss, but just when he most needs a friend, he finds one in a remarkable form.
An odd-looking rock that Angus brought back from the seashore turns out to be an egg that hatches a sweet, scrappy amphibian dinosaur with webbed flippers and Shrek ears. Angus secretly raises the creature in the spare bathroom’s tub.
Boy and beast bond, and the animal, which Angus calls Crusoe, creates all manner of ruckus in the family’s mansion. Ben Chaplin arrives on the scene playing a gruff but kindly handyman, and David Morrissey completes the other half of the good father figure/bad father figure equation as a stern military man on the lookout for German submarines. Meanwhile, Crusoe grows by leaps and bounds and relocates to nearby Loch Ness, where he could be mistaken for an enemy U-boat by the army’s artillery squad.
The story is light on its feet, but grounded by some substantial ideas, coming as it does from a novel by Dick King-Smith (who created Babe, the talking pig), and director Jay Russell (of “Tuck Everlasting” and “My Dog Skip”). The adventure builds to a thunderous, rather fright-filled climax, but young viewers will be relieved that everything ends happily.
Parents are likely to be pleased, as well. “The Water Horse” captures the spirit of fantasy that never quite rings true in “The Golden Compass” and is so superior to another children’s movie currently in theaters, “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” that they could have originated in different galaxies.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186