'The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep" is one of the family-friendliest films of the year. That's a good thing. The problem is that even the youngest person in the family may find the story familiar. That's not so good.
The film starts strong but then resorts to a standard film gimmick. Boy meets creature. Boy loses creature. Creature saves the day. This has been done in countless features: "Eragon," "Harry and the Hendersons," "E.T.," "Free Willy" and "Loch Ness," to name but a few.
The potential to be a great family film was there. All that needed to be done was to focus more on the heart of the movie. That comes from Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel), a youngster living in Scotland during World War II. He battles with feelings of abandonment and betrayal as he methodically counts down the days until his father's military service will end. He knows his father's return will fill the void that is consuming his heart.
A story about how children deal with a parent who has gone to war is an intriguing idea. It just gets overshadowed by the film's computer-generated star.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Angus finds the egg of a water horse. The story goes that only one water horse can exist at a time. When it is ready to die it lays one egg.
Angus nurses the creature to life. This sets up some predictable physical humor as the creature turns the household into chaos. The creature grows so quickly that Angus is convinced by the new handyman (Ben Chaplin) that it needs to be set free in the nearest loch.
The arrival of a group of soldiers assigned to guard the loch from German invasion creates a potentially deadly final showdown with the water horse.
Director Jay Russell lovingly paints this story of boy and beast. The first half of the film feels as if it has more weight, as it is obvious that the forlorn youth is using his discovery as a way to fill the emotional void in his life.
But eventually the movie begins to fall into the standard family action format. The creature is threatened by a source that is not so much evil as it is misguided. It takes a life-changing decision by the youngster to save the day.
The film snuggles up to themes of love, loss and rebirth. But, as if afraid to make a commitment that might make it end up being too heavy for general audiences, Russell pulls back and resorts to familiar fare for the final act. That weak conclusion loses even more strength with special effects that are about what you would get in a basic cable TV movie.
"The Water Horse" has some charm. Sadly, it just plays it too safe in the end.