This entertaining film came and went from theatres faster than it should have, perhaps because the advertising campaign emphasized the whimsical attributes to such an extent that audiences expected THE WATER HORSE to be frivolous family fun, something to rent for the kiddies to watch at home. In fact, Robert Nelson Jacobs’ screenplay (based on a book by Dick King-Smith, author of Babe) is pitched at a more adult level, with a sad child at the center and many somber moments addressing the loss of a father during war time. This sober coming-of-age story is balanced with the fantasy element: the discovering and nurturing of a “water horse,” a mythical beast that grows up to be the famous Loch Ness Monster. Director Jay Russell does not quite balance these contrasting story elements, but he keeps things moving along fairly nicely, so that we are able to sit back and enjoy the fun without ever losing sight of the sadness underneath. He is aided by some beautiful location photography, and a cast manages to play both the fantasy and the reality scenes with equal aplomb, even if there is more depth to the loch than to the characters.
The story uses a wraparound structure in which a middle-aged man in a tavern (Brian Cox – yes, the first Hannibal Lektor) regales a couple of tourists with a tale of the famous Loch Ness Monster. The story involves young Angus, who fears the water. He also counts the days until his father’s tour of duty in World War II ends – even though (as we later find out) his father’s ship was sunk, with the loss of all hands on board. Angus discovers a mysterious egg which hatches into a strange aquatic creature that he hides from his mother (who says the family cannot afford to keep a pet, presumably because times are hard and supplies are short during the war). One day, the English army, in the form of Capt Thomas Hamilton (David Morrissey), arrives to set up on outpost and artillery, in case the German U-Boats should attempt a sneak attack on the Scottish shores. Angus’s mother, Anne (Emily Watson) hires a handyman named Lewis (Ben Chaplin) to help out, and Angus soon finds himself with two surrogate father figures. Since Lewis is of fighting age, his not being in uniform is a mystery that leads Hamilton to suspect him of being a spy or a deserter, but perhaps merely jealousy is at work, as it soon becomes apparent that both Angus and his mother prefer Lewis. Lewis especially earns points when he identifies the mysterious creature (whom Angues names “Crusoe” after his favorite book) as a “water horse.” Crusoe soon grows too big to stay hidden, so Angus is forced to release him into the Loch. This leads to climactic, storm-swept scene in which the soldiers mistake the beast for a submarine and open fire, while Angus rushes to save the creature he raised.
THE WATER HORSE beguiles us by combining whimsy with darker elements. As in BABE, this family film is laced with danger and death that is barely kept off screen. This lends a sense of gravitas that prevents the film from frothing over with nothing more than childish charm. This is Angus’s coming of age story, in which he learns that childhood wishes, no matter how heartfelt, do not always come true. In a sense, the creature stands in for the missing father (a point underlined when Angus tells his mother that “he’s never coming back,” and she thinks he means Crusoe, when in fact Angus is admitting the bitter truth about his father). The analogy is not a perfect fit, since Crusoe begins life as a babe that Angus must raise, but the idea comes through that Crusoe fills a gap that has been left in Angus’ soul by the departure of his father. Meanwhile, Angus has two other surrogate fathers vying for his attention. At first Capt. Hamilton seems like the obvious stand-in, being also a military man, but he turns out to be a bit of twit, someone whose family connections have placed him in command of a position well away from the actual fighting. On the other hand, Lewis is revealed to have been honorably discharged – a wounded war hero. All of this is very interesting, but how it fits in with the story of Angus and Crusoe is not as clearly defined as it could be. What comes through seems to be that this encounter with the miraculous (and the responsibility that comes from caring for Crusoe) leads Angus to a more mature frame of mind: he is forced to move away from a childish view of the world, but thanks to Crusoe, Angus manages to face the grim reality without losing his child-like sense of wonder.
Unfortunately, these dark little undercurrents never fully surface, so the film does not attain the maturity and sophistication that made BABE not only charming but also profoundly uplifting. Not that the movie should have played out as a tragedy, but it certainly promises a bit more than it delivers. Crusoe is an ambiguous figure, both lovable and dangerous. When Lewis recounts the legend of the Water Horse, he cannot recall whether the story ends with the creature helping a traveler across the loch or dragging him down to his death. Although Crusoe is cute when little, he is fearsome when he grows to gargantuan size, and after being shot at by the military, he even attempts to attack Angus. Yet for all the hints dropped in this direction with all the subtlety of depth charges, little comes of it. Crusoe eats some fish, topples a boat, and shakes some men a bit, but his only real victim is an annoying dog his barking suddenly stops off-screen, leaving us to imagine what happened (which is never confirmed, so there are no emotional consequences).
Glossing over this unpleasantness is not enough to hide the story’s mature elements, but it does obscure them a bit. Angus also has a fear of water, which he must overcome in the final reel in order to guide Crusoe to safety. The phobia certainly makes sense (Angus’s father did die at sea), but the film undermines the climactic triumph by having Crusoe take Angus on a ride through the loch midway through the movie: it’s a breathtaking tour of underwater wonders, but it probably belongs in a 3D IMAX motion-simulation ride. In terms of the story, it undermines Angus’s courageous third act effort, because we have already seen him lose his fear of the water and learn to enjoy it.
This problem seems to stem from an attempt to punch up the story with a series of cinematic set-pieces that show off the special effects and/or add some action. Besides Angus’s watery ride on Crusoe’s back, there is a sequence of two old fisherman who accidentally snag the beast and promptly find their boat dragged across the surface like a toy. And there is a comic sequence in which Crusoe is chased by a dog through the mansion, interruptng a black-tie dinner – a scene with obvious parallels to the “Tragic Day” sequence in BABE, though less effective here. One problem is that Crusoe seems to have a friction-free belly that allows him to slide effortlessly across the wood floors, yet his slippery flippers somehow have a firm enough grip to propel him at high speed.
None of these scenes advances the story much, nor are they so brilliant as to stand on their own. They exist mostly to showcase the special effects, which are impressive if not quite convincing. Crusoe computer-generated origins are pretty obvious, thanks to the cartoony look of his expressions and the glistening digital look of his skin. It is possible to forgive these elements, because they actually help to distinguish him from reality, identifying him clearly as a fantasy creature, but it is not altogether clear that this is what the film wanted or needed. There is at least some attempt to pass Crusoe off as a “real” wild animal, possibly dangerous – a creature that eats, breathes, lives and dies just like any other. But the visual look reminds us that Crusoe is, indeed, an imaginary beast.
Alex Etel is wonderful as Angus; he is sad without ever seeming to feel sorry for himself, and he registers the maturity that comes from necessity without ever seeming too smart to be believable. Emily Watson does what she can with an underdeveloped role that demands little more than her warm presence. David Morrissey is effective as the slightly pompous Captain, but he cannot quite deliver enough shading to show that there’s a better person inside who emerges toward the end. Ben Chaplin fares better as Lewis: he establishes the mystery but also keeps the character interesting after the mystery has been revealed, without every coming across like a too perfect fairy-tale father-figure. And Brian Cox wraps the whole show up in a nice neat package. The wraparound device allows the filmmakers to present the story as something that might be either a memory or just an old man’s tall tale, but Cox makes us want to believe it all, the good and the bad.
THE WATER HORSE is glossy Hollywood entertainment. Although heavy on special effects and burdened with some unnecessary set pieces, it does deliver the heartfelt moments with credible sincerity. Whatever else the film may be trying to say about the military and war, on the simplest level the Water Horse is a symbol of resiliency. The CGI hijinx may not completely fit in with the body of the movie, but the magic it is meant to convey does come through, like a little gift, a quantum of solace that helps the heart – in the face of terrible disasters- not only to survive but also to retain its capacity for joy.
The original home video release of THE WATER HORSE includes a two-disc special edition DVD and on Blu-ray disc. There is no audio commentary, but there are numerous deleted scenes and featurettes. The two-disc DVD presents the film on Disc One and the bonus features on Disc Two.
The film is presented with English & French soundtracks and subtitles. There are options for both Widescreen (matching the original theatrical release) and a modified Full Screen. You make your choice before hitting the play button, but choose wisely: after you have made your selection, returning to the Main Menu does not offer the choice again; to switch from widescreen to full screen, or vice versa, you have to stop the DVD, then go back to the main men – which means you have to sit through the FBI anti-piracy warning again.
This disc launches with an annoying array of trailers that will have you reaching for the Menu and/or Fast-Forward button. The bonus features are presented with English audio only, with optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired. The features are divided into Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, and Previews (trailers for mostly kiddy-oriented films, along with a few family-oriented titles like SURF’S UP).
The “Deleted Scenes” consist mostly of small bits and pieces, many removed from sequences that made it in the final cut. For the most part they add little to the film, but one or two could have improved the film by being included.
- Angus Listens to the Radio – a bit more from an existing scene
- Caught in the Workshop – Angus’s mother realizes that he is hiding something. This would have explained why she was able to confidently tell the new handy-man that Angus was hiding a pet in the workshop.
- Kirste Smiles at Gunner Corbin – a few brief shots, implying a plot thread that never develops.
- Broken Bust – the soldiers break a statue while moving in to the mansion.
- “Thank God We’ve Got a Navy” – the grumpy old groundskeeper is unimpressed with the soldiers who are bivouacked on the grounds.
- Lewis Helps Angus Escape – Angus’s mother expresses concern about her son to Lewis, who is distracted by the sight of Angus sneaking out of the house to search for Crusoe. The dialogue clarifies a point left vague in the final cut: We know Angus believes his dead father will return from the war, but we don’t know whether his mother is hiding the truth, or she has told him and he refuses to believe it.
- Angus Blames Lewis – longer version of an existing scene.
- Cease Fire– the officer in charge orders the guns to stop firing at Crusoe, but for some reason they don’t. Why is not clear. In the final cut, we see the officer trying to give the order over the walkie-talkie, but interference from the storm prevents the message from getting through.
The featurettes tends to be unexciting promotional puff pieces. They go on too long without being particularly informative, but there are one or two exceptions. Director Jay Russell is featured prominently throughout, along with the leading players, but screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs is nowhere to be scene.
- Myths and Legends– gives us a history of the myth of the Loch Ness monster, particularly the 20th century version, which assumed that the legendary beast was a plesiosaur that had survived from the Jurassic Era.
- The Story – a brief look at the development of the script, including a few words from the book’s author.
- The Characters– consists mostly of praising the cast, particularly young Alex Etel.
- Setting the Scene – a look at the choice of locations
- Water Work: Creating the Water Horse– this should probably be titled “Creating the Water,” as it has much more to do with that than with the creature in the water. This is actually one of the more interesting featurettes, as water has always been a headache for special effects artists. Includes some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of Alex Etel riding on a blue mock-up of Crusoe, powered by a jet ski driven by a pilot dressed all in blue (blue being a color easy to remove and replace with the visual effects).
- Creating Crusoe – focuses on the titular “Water Horse.” This is another interesting feature, but it does suffer from a bit of repetition, again showing us the blue mock-ups used during live-action filming, which were replaced in the final film by the computer-generated creature. There is some good behind-the-scenes footage of the puppet used for live action filming when Crusoe is still small; although completely removed from the finished film, the puppet has some very life-life motions, which enabled the CGI artists judge the movements, shadows, and interaction with water when the creature is splashing around in a tub.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the behind-the-scenes footage is seeing that the scene of the torpedo boat being knocked out of the water by Crusoe was achieved live in a water tank, using a crane and a counterweight to raise and overturn the boat. Unfortunately, in the finished film, once all the CGI elements (Crusoe, stunt men, rain, etc) have been added, the shot has an unmistakably digital look that masks the actual live-action thrashing of the boat.
The full title THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP appears only on promotional materials. The on-screen title is simply THE WATER HORSE.
The first half of the movie – with the young Water Horse being hatched from an egg, raised by a young boy, fleeing from in fear, and then growing to fearsome size itself – is somewhat similar to the Japanese giant moster movie GAMERA THE BRAVE.
THE WATER HORSE: LEGEND OF THE DEEP (2007). Directed by Jay Russell. Screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the book by Dick King-Smith. Cast: Alex Etel, Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin, David Morrissey, Brian Cox.