While The Water Horse: Legend Of The Deep has a lot of shiny CGI effects and an adorable child ready and waiting to keep the rugrats occupied for a few hours this Christmas, there's enough psychological and psycho-sexual stuff going on in the story to keep parents guessing too. For a modern take on Pete's Dragon by way of The Secret Of Roan Inish, it's surprisingly dense and meaty. That's a little surprising, coming from Walden Media—home of such other squeaky-clean, sincere-but-flat book-to-film adaptations as Bridge To Terabithia and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. But the unblinking, wholehearted innocence that makes the film work is rapidly becoming a familiar company signifier.
The story—bookended by modern-day intervals that place the whole film as a story craggy old Scot Brian Cox is telling to two wide-eyed tourists—is set in April 1942, when Germans have "captured Europe" and are only 100 miles from Scotland's shores. This lets good-hearted but self-important Army captain David Morrissey pretend that there's some importance to his remote posting on an estate run by housekeeper Emily Watson, near Scotland's Loch Ness. Meanwhile, Watson's husband went down with his ship in combat a year ago, but her brooding, aquaphobic young son Alex Etel still firmly believes he's coming home. Then mysterious new handyman Ben Chaplin begins threatening Morrissey's operational security and his proprietary emotions toward Watson. With all this personal and war-related drama going on, it almost counts as a side plot when Etel finds an unremarkable, vaguely egg-shaped rock, and—perhaps having seen Eragon—lugs it home. Whereupon it hatches, producing an adorable "water horse" that behaves like a friendly puppy, eats like an elephant, and expands like a balloon, kicking off all sorts of hijinks.
Director Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting, My Dog Skip) and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton (The Cider House Rules) steep their charming fairy tale in gorgeous, stark Scottish coastal vistas, and the CGI is flawlessly integrated. Solid casting and performances help flesh out the film. But the story—based on a book by Dick King-Smith, whose children's novels also spawned Babe—wins the day. Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs can't resist a few clichés, particularly regarding the colorful, heavily brogued, comedic locals who hang out down at the local pub, but he dodges many of the obvious traps and avoids cloying sentiment wherever possible. The Water Horse sometimes reads as a rattletrap collection of ideas from other successful children's films, including Bedknobs And Broomsticks, Into The West, E.T., and Free Willy, but few kid films manage to assemble this much ambition alongside this much sincere, sweet emotion.