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A Boy and His Monster

Legend of Loch Ness

Jan. 10, 2008
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The overcast Scottish sky crackles with thunder, even on days when the sun pokes through. A verdant fleece clings to the foothills below the gray mountains. In The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, a lad named Angus (Alex Etel) steps carefully along the jagged Scottish coast, picking shells from the rocks. One day he reaches into a tidal pool for a strange egg-shaped object with a pitted surface. Upon examining the thing in the tool shed that serves as his playroom, Angus discovers that it is an egg unlike any other.

What emerges from the thick shell is a frightened yet friendly creature, a barking and slithery amphibian resembling a seal with an E.T. face. The animal belongs to no species recognized by the boy, who pores over the natural history books in the library of the manor where his mum (Emily Watson entirely in character) works as head housekeeper.

Later, another servant identifies the creature with a legend from Celtic folklore, the hermaphroditic water horse that lays a single egg in the deep Scottish lakes before its death. The creature is better known in the outside world as the Loch Ness monster.

The Water Horse rises well above the level of most contemporary family films. It’s moving and amusing, addresses the concerns of adulthood and childhood and is intelligent rather than merely smart-alecky or even clever. The setting in World War II Scotland places the fable about a boy and his friendly monster in a wider context. Angus is a lonely lad with few playmates, but he doesn’t realize how alone he is. His silently suffering mum has kept from him the news of his father’s death at sea. War brings other changes to his sheltered life when the Royal Artillery requisitions the estate, billeting the officers in the manor house while the enlisted men camp out on the grounds.

The strangeness and ambiguity of adult life from a child’s perspective is palpable. His mother finds herself at the center of a subtly hinted emotional triangle involving a sullen handyman (Ben Chaplin) and an army captain (David Morrissey). It’s hard for Angus to hide his amphibian friend, with soldiers milling about along with a growling bulldog belonging to a resentful sergeant.

The Loch Ness beast, flapping around the estate on its flippers with great agility, was realized digitally by the Weta special effects firm. The creature is one of the best pieces of computer-generated imagery seen on film in the last year. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton paints gorgeous vistas with the scenery, using New Zealand to stand in for Scotland. But more important than those elements is the script and the acting, which present a child’s world with unforced, wide-eyed wonder.


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