Dir: Jay Russell. US. 2007. 113mins.
Part gentle coming-of-age story, part whimsical animal flick, The Water Horse: The Legend Of The Deep tells the story of a young Scottish boy who serves as both friend and parent to a mysterious newborn creature that he eventually has to return to nearby Loch Ness. Mixing live action and CGI and anchored by solid performances, the film seems poised for decent holiday returns from core family audiences.

A good point of narrative comparison would be another movie about a boy's relationship with an oversized marine animal - Free Willy, which delivered a $150m worldwide hit and a franchise in the mid-1990s. Such proceeds seem a bit out of reach for The Water Horse, however; a more realistic goal might be something like last spring's Bridge To Terabithia, a coming-of-age tale which similarly traded in light fantasy elements, and rang up just over $50m abroad en route to a $130m cumulative gross.

Despite being based on a book by Dick King-Smith, the same author behind the source material for the hit movie Babe, The Water Horse isn't exploiting that connection in its marketing. That fact, combined with a lack of familiarity and/or cultural identification with the source material and legend of Loch Ness, will likely limit the movie's chances for breakout US success. A higher yield in English-friendly Western European countries seems more certain, but other foreign territories might find the movie similarly culturally exclusive.

Using a modern-day flashback device to frame a story and pitch us back to World War II, The Water Horse unfolds in 1940s Scotland, where young Angus MacMorrow (Etel) lives on a lake-set rural estate with his older sister and mother Anne (Watson) waiting on his father's return from the war. Not long after Angus finds a mysterious egg on the beach, troops are billeted at his home, and Captain Thomas Hamilton (Morrissey), a blueblood soldier placed purposefully far from the frontlines, sets out to impress discipline upon him.

Angus' hatched discovery, though, proves to be a most unusual creature - a pudgy, slug-like beast with expressive eyes, fins, a quick chomp and a love of water. Angus deems him Crusoe and takes care of him, feeding him potatoes and other odds and ends. But the loveable sea monster quickly outgrows both trashcans and bathtubs, so Angus enlists the aid of handyman Lewis Mowbray (Chaplin) to keep it a secret from both his mother and Captain Hamilton. It soon becomes apparent that Crusoe is too big to live anywhere but nearby Loch Ness, so Mowbray and Angus secret him away and set him free. But with the army testing their equipment in preparation for a possible defence against an attack by Nazi submarines, Crusoe's future is anything but secure.

Russell, who last helmed Ladder 49, showed his touch with fairytale whimsy in 2002's Tuck Everlasting, and also has trustworthy experience in another period piece tale of a boy and his pet via My Dog Skip, both of which come in handy here. Owing to its roots as a 1990 children's novel, The Water Horse has a solidly sketched backdrop of setting, and Russell and his team convincingly create the chaotic adult world around Angus, which makes his identification with Crusoe more believable and affecting.

It certainly helps that Etel, so arresting in Danny Boyle's Millions, is the perfect sort of child actor to hang a film's appeal on. Gifted with expressive eyes and an inviting countenance, he exudes naturalness and an easygoing sincerity. One feels the swallowed pain of his separation from his father, and wants very much to indulge this adventure with him.

If there are knocks on The Water Horse, foremost among them would be that Crusoe's growth comes in discrete, awfully big spurts; one good meal seems to cause him to double in size. Practically, for a budget, it may not be feasible to show the creature at 10 to 15 different sizes, but these huge jumps in bulk and dimension are distracting, even though they're often featured for comedic effect. Certain segments, too, including a dog chasing Crusoe around, feature a needlessly goosed-up, cartoonish sound mix, which is out of step with the rest of the movie's adherence to practicality.

Tech credits are nicely polished all around. Bringing Crusoe to life, the visual effects teams of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, who previously oversaw the effects work for The Lord Of The Rings, King Kong and The Chronicles Of Narnia, craft a seal-like creature that actually undergoes some noted facial maturation - no small feat in CGI . Especially notable, too, is the play of water and shadow across the beast's back in blue-grey moonlight.

Deep exteriors and beautiful vistas of a mostly on-location New Zealand shoot (Scotland provides key exteriors for the MacMorrow's estate grounds) are nicely contrasted with cluttered interiors by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton.

The film's music is also effective. Composer James Newton Howard's swirling score gives the movie a nicely proportioned sense of emotional uplift, hampered only by some desultory work in the aforementioned dog chase sequences; Sinead O'Connor, meanwhile, provides a new song, Back Where You Belong, under the movie's closing credits.

Production companies/backers
Revolution Studios (US)
Walden Media (US)
Beacon Pictures (US)
Ecosse Films (UK)

US distributor
Columbia Pictures

Int'l distributor (excluding a few territories)
Sony Pictures International

Robert Bernstein
Douglas Rae
Barrie M Osborne
Charlie Lyons

Executive producer
Charles Newirth
Jay Russell

Screen play
Robert Nelson Jacobs
based on The Water Horse by Dick King-Smith

Oliver Stapleton

Production designer
Tony Burrough

Mark Warner

James Newton Howard

Main cast
Emily Watson
Alex Etel
Ben Chaplin
David Morrissey
Priyanka Xi
Marshall Napier
Joel Tobeck
Erroll Shand
Bruce Allpress
Brian Cox