Review: 'Water Horse' is sophisticated family fare

This story about a young boy, who raises a sea monster from when it hatches until the all-too-short time when it has reaches the fearsome size of a dragon, has the earmarks of an “E.T.” story.

When you throw in the cut-and-paste humor associated with trying to keep a larger-than-life and mischievous pet secret from one’s mother, the stereotype would seem to unavoidably appropriate.

But director Jay Russell has a habit of taking standard storylines and enriching them with a touch of complexity and a great deal of attention to detail. As a consequence, we get something that’s fun but not frivolous and leaves us with something to chew on.

As it’s somewhat of a fantasy, we best give it a proper start:

Once upon a time in Scotland, there lived a boy named Angus (Alex Etel) who finds a large egg on the beach.

For Angus, unwilling to accept that his father will not return from Europe’s second war of the century, what lies within the shell has the power to take him away from a pain he has little capacity to process.

He takes it back to his father’s workshop, which serves as a refuge. A miniature dragon-like creature emerges and Angus senses the lack of wisdom in announcing his find. The boy who lives without a friend has suddenly found one.

But avoiding detection proves difficult. What Angus discovers to be a water horse shows a growing appetite that goes hand-in-hand with growth spurts, each encouraging an increase in the other.

To make matters worse, the inn at which he lives, run by his mother (Emily Watson), suddenly has tenants.

Lewis (Ben Chaplin), a handyman arrives to assist with the chores and takes over the workshop. A rather mysterious man, he has a few secrets of his own.

Responding to concerns of the Germans running submarines down from the north, the British army, taking up positions near by and needing a place for their officers, commandeers lodging.

The head commander, Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), an Oxford graduate, brings a pomposity directly proportional to his insecurity and lack of success as a soldier.

As the two men vie for the affections of Angus’ mother (Emily Watson) no one seems to notice his new sidekick. But a water horse needs to be in water, which necessitates visits to the bathtub inside the main building, which ups the ante and the fun.

Except for the requisite hijinks scene where a soldier’s bulldog, knowing what everyone else has missed and initiates a chase that takes the dog down the table of a formal banquet, the movie stays away from silliness.

The presence of Emily Watson, a consummate professional, anchors a story line that surprisingly, and with a great deal of grace, touches issues from inter-caste conflicts to the futility of war, without getting bogged down.

Movie producers in general have been slow in responding to what’s often referred to as the “sophistication” of young audiences, a euphemism for a loss of innocence coupled with an early onset of cynicism.

Sucked into the vacuum of worthy products, we find a bunch of junk–often unimaginative story lines supported by light potty humor.

“The Water Horse” not only provides solid entertainment for this age group, but the whole family—kindergartners to grandparents, without insulting the intelligence of anyone.

What is actually a story of the Loch Ness Monster succeeds by careful craftsmanship. The special effects and picturesque landscapes complement a solid screenplay and under Russell’s direction bring a pleasant surprise for the holiday season.

Grade: B

Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by all of Examiner's reviewers.

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