It has to be the most incongruous concept for a family film ever. Take the myth of the Loch Ness monster, marry it to a near note-for-note take on E.T., and pepper the entire thing with a World War II era British boy’s adventure tale. Add in the millennium-mandated CGI, some standard kid vid slapstick, and an ending that sees both Das Boot and Free Willy inadvertently referenced, and you’ve got Jay Russell’s incredibly surreal The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. While this cobbled together effort offers some intriguing ideas, things get messy quickly, and quite often.
It’s the mid-point of WWII, and the household staff of a massive Scottish manor is taken aback by the arrival of an entire English battalion. They are there, on express permission of the owner, to guard the local lake and prevent German U-boats from advancing on UK positions. Among the servant family affected are head housekeeper Anne MacMarrow (Emily Watson), and her children Kristie and little Angus (Alex Etel). She’s already suffered a wartime loss, and doesn’t want her children harmed further. Into their life come two distinct beings. One is new handyman Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin). The other is a baby ‘water horse’ — a mythic creature that takes an instant liking to Angus. While he tries to protect the beast, the forces of war threaten everyone — and everything — on the estate.
It’s difficult to say what finally undermines The Water Horse. It could be the sappy way in which director Russell demands the imaginary beast mug for the camera. Thanks to (or because of) the growing intricacy of computer generated animation, this little monster can be funny, pathetic, angry, and overly cartoony. We know that others in the film react to it with fear or disgust, but the movie keeps making it cutesy and cuddly, even when it turns into a three ton behemoth. Worse still, little Alex Etel is quite annoying as Angus. Drawn from the standard cinematic school that ‘obstinate equals adorable’, this self-centered sprite causes more trouble for his family (and the entire British military, for that fact) that any Nazi invader.
On the plus side, Emily Watson radiates the proper 1940s feeling of loss and diminished hope. Her scenes with main army man David Morrissey (as a by the book officer named Captain Hamilton) have a subtle charm, and her equally effective moments with Chaplin are warm and winning. As Mowbray, the established UK thespian represents the most complex and concerning The Water Horse ever gets. While everyone believes him to be a deserter, the audience is privy to a physical fact that countermands all the low talk and innuendo. It’s just too bad the animated monster keeps getting in the way. The Water Horse frequently feels like a proper Merchant-Ivory production overrun by refugees from Disney’s Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend.
Russell does try to keep things light and airy, never letting the turmoil overtaking Europe damper his film’s flights of fancy. And the last act showdown between the animal, some depth charges, and a pursuing PT boat crackle with action film professionalism. But getting to this point takes a lot of surreal side trips down some unusual (and downright contradictory) plot paths. The Water Horse: The Legend the Deep is not a bad film, just a very confused one. Had it settled on a single approach, it could have been a classic. Instead, the clashing elements lead to an intriguing if incomplete experience.
The DVD includes a second disc of bonus materials, including deleted scenes and six making-of featurettes.
Son of Seabiscuit.