In a Scottish pub, not far from Loch Ness, two young American tourists are drawn to a photograph of the world famous monster. An amiable old gentleman (Brian Cox) maintains the photo is fake and tells them the real story. In the early 1940s, young Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel) is both fascinated and afraid of the water, recalling his father’s tales of magic seashells, but haunted by his death at sea. Angus discovers a strange-looking egg washed up on the shore that hatches into a flipper-flapping little sea monster he dubs Crusoe, after Robinson Crusoe.
Reared by Angus and his big sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi) in secret, Crusoe rapidly grows larger in size which creates problems when a battalion of British soldiers led by Captain Thomas Hamilton (David Morrissey) are billeted at the stately home where their mother Anne (Emily Watson) is caretaker. Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), a onetime war hero scarred in battle, becomes the children’s confidante and identifies Crusoe as a “water horse”, a Celtic creature of legend. But with British forces convinced the Germans are planning a u-boat attack, it isn’t long before Crusoe is targeted by some trigger-happy soldiers.
Since The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep was shot in New Zealand, Scottish viewers are liable to notice the liberties taken with local geography. Yet that is a minor misstep in an otherwise superlative family movie, based on a novel by Dick King-Smith, author of Babe (1995). Director Jay Russell has a real feel for pastoral lyricism, as was evident from Tuck Everlasting (2002) his little known but seriously offbeat Disney movie, and as in his 1940s set My Dog Skip (2000) paints a vivid picture of time and place with shots of stags charging across gorgeous scenery and Spitfires flying over hills.
The story unfolds in a manner very similar to E.T. - The Extraterrestrial (1982), with the Angus/Crusoe bond turning into another surrogate father-son relationship. Crusoe the water horse is a CG triumph and wonderfully expressive, but while the action set-pieces are suitably thrilling, the film thankfully never lapses into an effects-fest. Scripted by Robert Nelson Jacobs, it deftly interweaves various subplots including a nicely understated romance between Annie and Lewis, the family coping with the loss of their father, and the tension between shell-shocked Mowbray and resentful Hamilton that develops into a grudging respect. Surprisingly for a children’s film set amidst the Second World War, it does not sentimentalize the British squaddies, some of whom are quite nasty, which develops into a subtext on the differences between real war heroes like Mowbray and braggarts.
A great cast brings warmth and soul to the drama, while sublime pieces of movie magic include Angus’ helter-skelter ride across and under Loch Ness on Crusoe’s back, chase sequences involving the young water horse that carry a welcome touch of Tom & Jerry, and a rousing climax where he does battle with a handful of misguided soldiers out to bag the beastie.