It might not seem the ideal start for a kids’ film. In the first moments of The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, a pink-faced Scotsman (Brian Cox) sits alone in a pub, his eyes atwinkle as he spots a couple of young American tourists. They’re gazing on the most famous photo of the Loch Ness monster, showing a snaky shape and murky water. Just when the young man asserts for his girlfriend that the picture’s “fake,” the old man intervenes: “There’s more to that photo than meets the eye.” The couple sits down, intrigued, and the hold man smiles. And with that, the “true tale” of the monster begins to take on a more complicated, and also family-friendly shape.
Based on a children’s novel by Dick King-Smith (who also wrote Babe: The Gallant Pig), the story begins in 1942. Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel) is missing his dad, a former estate groundsman, now gone for many months with the Royal British Navy. Still living on the estate with his mother Anne (Emily Watson), who works as head housekeeper, and his sister Kristie (Priyanka Xi), Angus spends his days on the beach looking out to sea, afraid to go too near the water. A brief fantasy scene in which Angus loses his footing in the shallows and plunges deep into shadowy waters suggests his fear is related to his worries about his absent father, a theme the film follows variously, as Angus finds several father substitutes.
The first of these is the titular creature. Following his scary dream on the beach, Angus finds a barnacle-encrusted egg, which he hauls back to his father’s workshop and tries to open with a knife. The crack me makes reveals an odd, glowy blue goo, at which point Anne calls him inside and the project is abandoned. Little does he imagine that on his return, the egg will have hatched, producing a floppy, flippered bluish beastie whom the boy names Crusoe, after his favorite adventure story.
As Angus nurtures and feeds his new pet, he’s careful to keep it hidden from Anne, whom he imagines will reject it out of hand, being distracted by needing to feed her two kids while her husband’s away. Meantime, Anne’s life turns upside down, first, by the arrival of a Home Guard company, bivouacking at the estate. Led by the handsome and self-regarding Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), the group sets up tents and a kitchen unit, as well as a mighty gun atop a cliff along the loch, in anticipation of a Nazi submarine invasion. The second disruption is less odious: she finds a replacement groundsman, Lewis (Ben Chaplin), a former sailor, honorably discharged following a close encounter with shrapnel.
The two men set up opposing possibilities for Angus’ thinking about the war: where Lewis understands the trauma and loss involved, Captain Hamilton remains gung-ho and competitive (not least because he feels left behind at home, rather than being deployed to the front line. His resentment of Lewis takes a kind of jealous shape, as he attempts to mold Angus into a hardy boy (he makes him clean his jeep and pound his tent poles). Lewis treats Angus with more respect and gentleness, such that the boy feels able to trust him when at last he can no longer keep Crusoe’s existence a secret.
This comes about as the creature grows — and grows and grows. Soon, it’s no longer the size of a lapdog, but becoming a full-fledged “monster,” in need of more space to swim and more food, beyond the table scraps Angus sneaks out of the kitchen. Designed by Peter Jackson’s WETA effects workshop, Crusoe flaps about in the bathtub, making increasingly loud noises that Anne continues to miss, even as the Home Guard’s mascot, a bulldog named Churchill, makes it his personal mission to hunt down and destroy Crusoe. At last the monster becomes monster-sized, and far too large to keep anywhere near the house, let alone in it. As Angus enlists Lewis’ help in moving Crusoe to the wider waters of the loch, the Captain presses his luck with Anne, hoping to win her heart and, more reluctantly, take over as father to her children.
As the two men provide alternative versions of dadness — dependably best-friendy and oppressively authoritative — Crusoe provides yet another, enticing Angus to venture beyond his familiar surroundings. With the creature, the boy learns to appreciate and respect the broader world. When Angus first sees Crusoe grown all the way up to some 45 feet in length, with a long graceful neck and a persistently screechy sound effect, he’s both startled and reverential. More importantly, he’s thrilled, for Crusoe remains his beloved companion and best protector, an unusual but devoted sorta-dad, no matter his size. Once reacquainted, Angus takes a ride on Crusoe’s back, and they go diving, together, through deep and beautiful waters, so that Angus doesn’t even remember to be afraid of the water — or the truth of what has happened to his father — any more.
As narrator Cox sets up from the start, the tale of the monster is at once outrageous and charming. If the literal details are much like others you’ve seen in films involving little boys and majestic magical beasts (say, Eragon, or more enchantingly, Charlotte’s Web), The Water Horse also takes seriously the emotional underpinnings of such fantasies, the experiences and hopes that lead children to imagine other worlds, other friends, and other parents.