There’s no dearth of films that chronicle a child’s emotional growth in conjunction to time spent with an animal (or alien, or robot, or otherwise being that doesn’t communicate/emote in the traditional andro manner); often the most poignant of relationships are those without the pretense and complexity found between two people. At the heart of every young boy or girl is often the desire to have a friend that no one else has, and to whom they themselves are paramount. An animal (and an imaginary animal especially) can make a kid feel like they’re the most important person in the world. There’s a lot of silly sentimentality attached to these kinds of films, at least, those that aren’t going for the heartrending realism of Sounder and those harrowing poor-boy-and-his-dog stories, but the best eschew the easy humor and sight gags in favor of a good subtext that reminds us of deeper elements at play. Mercifully, The Water Horse has plenty of the latter.
Set in 1940s wartime Scotland, where the German threat was predominantly naval, the setting gives a strange anxiety to the seeming safety of northern Britain. Young Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel, from Millions) prowls the craggy hills and unbelievably cold-looking lochs, living in a stately manse that most of us only dream about inhabiting. The film is framed, somewhat inconsistently, as a tale told by an old man (Brian Cox) to a pair of dissonant Yank tourists (is there any other kind?) who’ve wandered into his pub. Cox will only appear a handful of times as a narrator; his role in the story isn’t revealed at first, though it’s pretty obvious, and he can offer little other than a predictable coda. One important point he makes at the onset, however, is that Angus is both terrified and compelled by water. An early scene has the boy sitting at loch’s edge, moodily imagining himself walking into the water and then plummeting. Angus is a curiously self-contained child, rendered well by Etel, with a kind of cautious sadness playing across his face. The vacuum in the boy’s life would appear to be the loss of his father, who’s off serving in the Royal Navy.
Angus stumbles across a mysterious egg one day which, of course, hatches into the eponymous creature, looking a lot like a slug crossed with a Plesiosaur. Angus is enthralled with the beast, though keeping it a secret from his mother (a fretful Emily Watson) is a chore. To further complicate matters, a battalion of gunners arrive in the village and billet themselves on the family’s land. Their commander, Capt. Hamilton (David Morrissey), suspects that the loch is vulnerable to a U-Boat invasion. Hamilton is a straight-laced character, but he possesses an insecurity as to his position in the war effort which makes him dangerous. The film presents the soldiers in a manner reminiscent of both The Iron Giant and typical creature-feature fare; though they’re on the side of the “good guys” in a narrative and (sort-of) historical sense, their very nature makes them unfailing agents of harm, especially where mythical monsters are to be found.
While Angus has his hands full tending to his dangerous new pet, a newcomer arrives, Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), a hired-hand with a mysterious past; a young man not already serving in the armed forces immediately appears suspicious. Mowbray becomes an ally to Angus, helping to conceal the creature, whom Angus has named Crusoe, who is meant to reference both Celtic legend and the real Loch Ness incident(s). Other than a few silly episodes involving near-misses and a Sergeant’s bulldog (all gags promised in the previews), the story does a fine job drawing parallels between the fantasy and the dramatic core it leavens; Angus’s fear of the water, and the immense void in his life fulfilled by this myth-come-true, have poignant metaphors behind them - a heartbreaking atmosphere of war and the repressed knowledge that a loved one isn’t coming home from it.
The Water Horse doesn’t always balance the light and the leaden properly, and the subplots involving Chaplin’s past and Morrissey as a villain don’t entirely gel, but these flaws aren’t enough to make the film a mere Free Nessie, coasting on pure kiddie adrenaline and sentiment. There are actually powerful moments in the story, though I wish there were more. At least this time the writing had a good heart, and one which should make the film a pleasant surprise to most.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and has somehow worked in museums and archives without having battled Nazis or Freemasons.
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep / Phillip Stephens
Film | December 25, 2007 | Comments ()