Alex Etel as Angus MacMorrow
Emily Watson as Anne MacMorrow
Ben Chaplin as Lewis Mowbray
David Morrissey as Captain Hamilton
Priyanka Xi as Kirstie MacMorrow
Marshall Napier as Sgt. Strunk
Joel Tobeck as Sgt. Walker
Despite the fact that more and more family fantasy films seem to be getting made every year in the wake of the success of the "Harry Potter" series and "The Chronicles of Narnia," it seems that genuinely good children's films are getting more and more rare, with most drifting into easy preciousness or childish slapstick or both. If this year's earlier attempts, "The Seeker" and "The Golden Compass" were examples of how to do the genre completely wrong, then "The Water Horse" is a fine example of how to do it right.
Told mostly in flashback by a mysterious tavern dweller (Brian Cox) on the shores of Loch Ness, the film purports to tell the true story of the famed Loch Ness monster, beginning with it being found as an egg by young Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel) during the middle of World War II.
"The Water Horse" is essentially a coming-of-age story, comparing the end of Angus' childhood with the young monster--named Crusoe by Angus after the famed literary character--as it grows from childhood playmate to wild animal. Both are hastened on by the great war and the inevitable changes war brings, beginning with the death of Angus' father at some point in the recent past.
The differences between a good and bad children's film are usually in the details and just how well the director executes them. Here, Jay Russell ("Ladder 49") directs with a firm hand, largely ignoring opportunities for easy sermonizing or sentimentality, resulting in a finished film that's far better than it has any right to be.
Which isn't to suggest there isn't any slapstick or semi-childish comedy, "The Water Horse" certainly has its moments, particularly early on as Angus tries in vain to keep Crusoe hidden from his mother and the British artillery company that's been recently billeted on the old estate he lives on with his family. However, Russell and his writer resolutely refuse to transform Crusoe or his relationship with Angus into a purely cartoon affair, instead following the idea to it's logical conclusion as Crusoe eventually grows into a great and fearsome beast that has less and less in common with Angus and the human world every day.
He's aided by an extremely well-cast film that makes the most of every moment it's given, and a script that largely refuses to reduce its characters to archetypes, trying its best to make well-rounded human beings out of everyone, from David Morrissey's pompous artillery colonel that would like to be take the place of Angus' father (however temporarily) to Ben Chaplin's surly but good-hearted handyman. For the most part, easy cliché is avoided in favor of real characterization and that choice, more than any other, sets "The Water Horse" apart from the pack.
It also helps that they have some first class effects courtesy of New Zealand effects company Weta. Crusoe is an extremely well-realized digital creature, capable of subtle acting that still comes across as more animal than sapient character, though there are some instances early on with baby Crusoe that are a little over the top for a supposedly real creature, and any spot where Crusoe has to interact with a real, physical person don't really come off that well.
There's a bit too much exposition early on as well, a problem Ben Chaplin gets the worst of as he is often stuck with delivering it while not being given a particularly good reason as to why he would know it, and in its quest for an antagonist it betrays the humanism it uses in the rest of its characterization for archetypes and menacing faces that don't really have anything behind them.
Still, those are mostly just quibbles. "The Water Horse" is an extremely charming little children's film of the type that we unfortunately have been seeing less and less often, with just enough weight--as opposed to randomly and uselessly inserted 'adult' humor--to truly earn the title 'a film for the entire family.'