With Hollywood continually chastised for failing to make quality family films, it's a shame that when one finally comes along no ones goes to see it. Such was the fate that befell 'The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep,' which debuted in the United State last December to an almost complete lack of audience interest. Thanks to a lame marketing campaign and little faith by distributing studio Sony, even the generally strong critical notices couldn't save this little gem from oblivion. A true sleeper, 'Water Horse' may just be 2007's most unjustly overlooked film.
Reading the plot synopsis of 'Water Horse,' one could be forgiven for thinking it mawkish drivel. Off the shores of Scotland during WWII, a young boy named Angus (a charming Alex Etel) discovers a large and mysterious egg along the shores of Loch Ness. Angus soon discovers that the egg really houses a mischievous hatchling, none other than "The Water Horse," the loch's most mysterious and fabled creature. Angus hopes to keep his newfound friend (who he names Crusoe) as a pet, but much to the shock of all (including his loving mother, a local housekeeper named Anne, played by Emily Watson), the Water Horse is growing by leaps and bounds -- increasing to nearly ten times its size every day. Keeping the fabled baby Loch Ness a secret will prove impossible, especially when regiment Capt. Hamilton (David Morrissey) and the estate's new handyman (Ben Chaplin) comes snooping around.
Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs ('Flushed Away') and directed by Jay Russell ('Tuck Everlasting), 'The Water Horse' is a magical fantasy that, for once, actually possesses some genuine magic. I think that's because while the film is competently made in terms of its effects and titular creature, it also has larger artistic ambitions. The WWII setting, the carefully-observed family dynamics, and the lack of a father figure for Alex (dad is off at sea, fighting Nazis) don't feel so much like easy melodrama as well-observed storytelling, enough so, that well before the fantastical elements are introduced, we fully believe in this world and are invested in the fates of these characters. Like the best mythology, 'The Water Horse' simply feels real.
Once Crusoe is introduced, I was more than ready to forgive the film for being so obviously manipulative. As with 'E.T.,' only the most hardened, cynical heart could not be warmed by this little guy. Looking like a sort of soggy, floppy water-puppy, Crusoe tugs at the heartstrings thanks to a combination of effective CGI and a few practical effects. Which is a good thing, for as the plot kicks into high gear the film cribs more than a little from 'Free Willy. Angus will enlist the aid of his mother and sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi) to get Crusoe out to sea before potential capture. Yet what 'Water Horse' lacks in originality, it makes up for in simple, engrossing emotion.
Many will undoubtedly resist the charms of 'Water Horse.' The film is an obvious pastiche of not only 'E.T.' and 'Free Willy,' but certainly 'Old Yeller,' 'Lassie,' and countless other "a boy and his pet" flicks. That didn't bother me, though -- Russell and Jacobs craft such a memorable milieu and cast of human characters (not to mention Crusoe) that the film engages throughout. Lacking a single cynical bone in its body, the purity of heart 'The Water Horse' possesses is its greatest asset, and elevates it far above its conventions. This is the rare family film that truly has the power to charm.
Sony brings 'Water Horse' to Blu-ray in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 presentation, framed at 2.40:1. It's a very strong transfer, and easily one of the best recent efforts from the studio.
The visual style of 'Water Horse' does not overdo any one aspect of its presentation; in fact, it's rather subdued for an effects-heavy fantasy. Colors are almost pastel-like in the use of muted but still appealing hues, which are clean and consistent. Blacks are excellent and contrast excels, giving the image plenty of depth. The print is spotless. I was also impressed with the blend of CGI and live action, with the image retaining its sharpness rather than lapsing into that soft "motion blur" look. Sony also lays off the edge enhancement, so the transfer feels natural and detailed. Perhaps 'Water Horse' doesn't have enough oomph to rank as instant demo material, but it's a wonderfully effective presentation.
English, French, and Portuguese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit) audio options are provided, along with Spanish and Thai Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround at 448kbps (subtitles are included for all languages). The TrueHD presentation is solid if not exceptional.
Surround use is the highlight. The rears are often active with well-directed discrete effects and near-seamless panning. The enjoyable score by James Newton Howard is like another character in the film, with a strong presence throughout the soundfield. Dynamic range is generally expansive with excellent deep bass and spaciousness to the rest of the range. Unfortunately, I found dialogue a bit dodgy, with some quieter scenes overwhelmed by the action, and certain accents hard to decipher. It's not a fatal flaw, but it keeps the mix from truly soaring.
'Water Horse' hits Blu-ray day-and-date with a two-disc DVD set, but the extras aren't as expansive as you might expect. This is a fairly slim package, with no filmmaker commentary, and one that veers too much to the promotional side. (All extras are presented in 1080, and offer subtitles in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.)
'The Water Horse' is one of 2007's most underrated gems. It's a cute family film that's entertaining and uplifting, if perhaps a bit too soft for some, but I totally got suckered in. This Blu-ray has quite nice video, good, but less impressive audio, and supplements that could have used some work. 'The Water Horse' is definitely a sleeper that I'm happy to recommend.