The Water Horse (a.k.a. The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep)

(2007) ** 1/2 Pg
111 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Jay Russell. Cast: Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin, Alex Etel, David Morrissey, Geraldine Brophy.

Though adults will feel something is missing, the kid-friendly adventure The Water Horse effectively swaps the Loch Ness Monster for E.T. An adaptation of the children's novel by Dick King-Smith (Babe), the film by Jay Russell (My Dog Skip) offers lively shenanigans as well as misty drama, with stalwarts Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin supporting young Alex Etel (Millions). If the latter pleasingly evokes the days when Roddy McDowall frolicked with Flicka and Lassie, it must be said that a CGI pet is not quite so easy to love as a flesh-and-blood performer, animal or human.

Etel plays Angus, a Scottish lad with a fear of water, who discovers in a tide pool a mysterious egg. It hatches to reveal a fabled sea creature that tangles with the household breakables, family dog, and—whoops!—the military outfit that's just commandeered Angus' home during WWII. Hijinks ensue, Angus' widowed mother Anne (Watson) makes eyes with local handyman Lewis Mowbray (Chaplin), and the boy learns two important lessons: how not to be afraid and how to say goodbye to his rapidly growing pet.

It's all as dopily likeable as it is familiar, and at 118 minutes, also a bit pokey. An annoying framing device stars the otherwise welcome Brian Cox, who tells the "big fish story" to slack-jawed tourists. David Morrissey plays up the judgmental Capt. Thomas Hamilton, a not-so-attractive potential father figure for Angus. The boy's bonding with his water horse, Crusoe ("trapped on an island"), represents a transference of his yearning for his lost-at-war father, whose death Angus and his mother fear to process (for good measure, the beastie is also an orphan, another point of relation). Robert Nelson Jacobs' screenplay also ably acknowledges the class tension between Hamilton and Mowbray, competitors for Anne's attention.

The handsome locations (a bit of Scotland, a lot of New Zealand) go a long way to making The Water Horse an attractive family film. The placidity of the loch is disturbed by the billeted troops, who likewise threaten to make a monster out of Crusoe. Even if that misunderstanding can be sorted out, there's the old chestnut of the found-animal drama. Explaining that Crusoe has outgrown his bathtub, Lewis asks, "You want what's best for him, don't you?". "What's best for him is to be with me," the boy replies. Of course, a boy's coming of age necessarily involves letting go of certain idealistic notions, a truism The Water Horse properly acknowledges.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby True HD 5.1 Surround

Street date: 4/8/2008

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Sony is simultaneously releasing DVD and Blu-Ray editions of The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. The latter is especially sparkling, with clear and dazzling scenic shots and potent 5.1 surround track. As usual, no complaints from the technical wizards at Sony—in fact, all of the fine bonus features come through in crisp HD, a too-rare feature in Blu-Ray discs thus far.

The behind-the-scenes featurettes (1:16:54) comprise six segments, all of which unveil extensive behind-the-scenes footage, including blue-screen photography, stunt work, and stolen moments of Watson coaching Etel and Chaplin goofing around with him (it's also nice to see an evidently quite relaxed Russell enjoying his work on the set). The first featurette, "Myths and Legends," kicks off with Duncan Simpson narrating the traditional "The Legend of the Water Horse" and moves on to comments by director Jay Russell, naturalist Adrian Shine, full-time "monster hunter" Steve Feltham, and Loch Ness locals and tourists. "The Story" and "The Characters" are self-explanatory, including interviews with Russell, Dick King-Smith, Alex Etel, Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin, David Morrissey, Priyanka Xi, and producers Barrie Osborne and Charlie Lyons.

"Setting the Scene" adds the insight of production designer Tony Burrough, who speaks to the physical challenges (and joys) of the shoot: taking a boat to work, dealing with wind, wrangling trains and military aspects, and the all-important two weeks shooting exteriors in Scotland to match principal photography in New Zealand. "Water Work: Creating The Water Horse" allows stunt coordinator Augie Davis to praise Etel's hard work filming underwater (despite his reservations), and "Creating Crusoe" brings out the digital artists: senior special effects supervisor Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor R. Christopher White, creature FX art director Gino Acevedo, animation supervisor Richard Francis-Moore, and visual effects supervisor Erik Winquist.

A suite of deleted scenes (with "Play All" option) are mostly pinches of seasoning left out of the recipe: "Angus Listens to the Radio" (:38), "Caught in the Workshop" (:52), "Kirstie Smiles at Gunner Corbin" (:28), "Broken Bust" (:39), "'Thank God We've Got a Navy'" (:19), "Lewis Helps Angus Escape" (2:39), "Angus Blames Lewis" (:43), and "Cease Fire" (:22). There's also the "Virtual Crusoe Game", allowing you to name and tend for your own water horse. C'mon, you know that's too cute: from bucket to tub to fountain to Loch Ness, your water horse depends on you to satisfy its hunger, mood, and energy, allowing the wee beastie to grow while a narrator eggs you on ("Holy haggis!"). The disc spins up to trailers for Surf's Up, Open Season, Open Season 2 (teaser), and elsewhere includes previews for Monster House and Daddy Day Camp. Kids will have a good time with this disc, done up in sterling Sony style.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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