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Based on the children's novel by Dick King-Smith (Babe), Walden Media's latest offering, The Water Horse (rated PG for some action/peril, mild language, and brief smoking), strikes an almost perfect balance of whimsy and reality.
As the Scot telling a "true" tale to two American tourists at a local pub, Brian Cox sets the tone for the story of Angus MacMarrow (Alex Etel), a solemn boy whose father is away on the frontlines of World War II. Scrabbling along the lake by his house one afternoon, Angus comes upon an egg-shaped, barnacle-encrusted rock that holds a fantastic secret. Within it grows the last remaining water horse, known more commonly as the Loch Ness monster.
After hatching, the cute, slimy creature, which Angus dubs Crusoe, quickly outgrows his bathtub home. Soon Angus finds that he must keep Crusoe a secret not just from his mother (Emily Watson), but also from the Scottish captain who has commandeered the MacMorrow house for his regiment with the flimsy explanation that they must prevent Nazi submarines from sneaking into the lake. Conflict with the captain introduces action as well as grown-up notions of courage and cowardice. These elements, along with the friendship Angus forms with the handyman he takes into his confidence (Ben Chaplin), add depth to a film that might otherwise have devolved into sappy fairytale.
Though it does occasionally stumble into predictable territory, The Water Horse succeeds because it relies on story as much as spectacle. The selling point of so many live-action films targeted at kids these days is the number of CGI monsters and mythical creatures it gives them to gawk at. Crusoe and his underwater world are stunning thanks to WETA workshop-the team behind the effects in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia-but they are not the main attraction.