Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2008

I am not 'Legend'

'The Water Horse' floats over familiar territory with ordinary results

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
Columbia Pictures
Director: Jay Russell
Screenplay: Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the book by Dick King-Smith
Starring: Alex Etel, Ben Chaplin, Emily Watson, David Morrissey, Craig Hall, Priyanka Xi and Brian Cox
Rated PG / 1 hour, 51 minutes
(out of four)

The boy and his pet. Always a killer combination, right? The lonely boy without a father figure discovering something magical that gives his life meaning . . . only to have it stripped away on the cusp of growing up.

I mean, who among us can't be reminded of our childhoods - that one lonely summer with that one favorite dog, cat or extraterrestrial life form - whenever we pop in E.T., The Iron Giant, My Dog Skip and countless others?

Even if things didn't exactly happen that way for some of us - even if, for instance, some stupid landlord wouldn't even let us have pets - these kinds of movies sure make it seem like we remember. When done right, they can manufacture nostalgia out of thin air.

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep comes close to finding that same feeling but falls oddly short. Despite offering a clever premise (purporting to explain the origins of the famous Loch Ness Monster legend) and two captivating lead performances, the film feels all too slight as too many character- and story-building details get left out. And, oddly enough, one half of the child/pet dynamic fails to net much emotional presence. That's the heart of the film and the key to this formula, but in case of The Water Horse it feels like the missing piece.

The mysterious being that followed Reese's Pieces around the house was as much our discovery as it was Elliott's, and we came to love it as much as he did. That relationship essentially made the film.

Structurally, The Water Horse is trying to do the same thing; the baby water horse is supposed to slither and flap its wings into our open hearts. Only it never does.

The water horse - long thought to be a mere myth - is the accidental discovery of a lonely, water-phobic young boy named Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel). It's World War II and his father, with whom Angus was quite close, has been at war for quite some time. He's certain that his dad will come any day now . . . only his mother's (Emily Watson) body language tells us otherwise.

Until then, he's content to be by himself. His mother is distant, his sister is at his throat; he spends his days doing chores and finding remote spots along the shore to be alone with his thoughts . . . which mostly go back to memories of his dad.

He feels threatened by the arrival of the kind but mysterious Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin) - who has been hired by Mrs. MacMorrow to help around the house - and even moreso by the sudden infiltration into his home of an army regiment headed by the arrogant, hard-edged Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey).

Both Mowbray and Hamilton serve as de-facto father figures to Angus - and in polar-opposite fashion. Hamilton, seeing an opportunity to impress a grieving widow, tries to make a man out of the young boy, while Mowbray keeps his distance. All he does is be there for Angus when he needs him - namely, when he needs him to help hide the secret water horse from his mom, who would surely throw the little creature out. Or cover for him when it starts making a mess of the house. Or protecting Angus when the thing gets too big and dangerous for the townsfolk to ignore.

Of note are the performances of Etel and Chaplin, which very nearly elevate the film beyond its storytelling mistakes. Etel, who was so good a few years back in Danny Boyle's Millions, has a soulful gaze beyond his years and is able to create in Angus a portrait of alienation and anger - a boy clutching at innocence and desperately avoiding the overwhelming feeling that he'll never see his dad again. Chaplin (The Thin Red Line) is a perfect combination of warmth and strength.

Problem is, we don't spend nearly enough time with Angus, Mowbray or the water horse itself - and spend far too much time flashing forward to the frame story of the older Angus (Brian Cox), telling his story to a couple of wide-eyed travelers.

The thing is, the story itself - at least the story as we see it - wouldn't necessarily be all that much to tell. The Water Horse leaves huge gaps that could have been used to explore more terrain - and most importantly, to bring the title character to life. As it is, we have merely an outline of what the story is supposed to be about.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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