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Originally published Tuesday, December 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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There is more to this Nessie tale than the monster

Excuse my Nessie fatigue, but there have been at least four feature films about or inspired by the Loch Ness Monster since 1995. Fortunately, "The Water Horse" is the best.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"The Water Horse," with Ben Chaplin, Emily Watson, David Morrisey, Alex Etel, Priyanka Xi. Directed by Jay Russell, from a screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs, based on the novel "The Water Horse" by Dick King-Smith. Rated PG for some action/peril, mild language and brief smoking. 111 minutes. Several theaters.

Excuse my Nessie fatigue, but there have been at least four feature films about or inspired by the Loch Ness Monster since 1995.

These include Seattle filmmaker Rick Stevenson's "Magic In the Water," John Henderson's two-fer "Loch Ness" and "Mee-Shee the Water Giant," and now Jay Russell's "The Water Horse," based on a novel by Dick King-Smith, author of "The Sheep Pig" (basis of the wonderful, 1995 talking-pig movie, "Babe").

Fortunately, "The Water Horse" is the best, though it begins with wearying familiarity in the overall genre of post-"E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" films focusing on relationships between lonely children and fantastical creatures. Young, anxious Angus (Alex Etel) discovers a football-size egg on the banks of Loch Ness, in Scotland, and soon finds a newborn water horse on his hands — a creature of Celtic lore.

Comic chaos ensues as the dinosaurlike, infant beast, dubbed Crusoe, tears Angus' home apart even as the boy tries to hide it. Eventually, Crusoe is released into the famous lake southwest of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, where it grows to dragonlike proportions and becomes the stuff of legend.

Throughout, Crusoe and Angus maintain their friendship, driving one another to overcome obstacles on the way to their individual destinies.

As I said, it all sounds terribly familiar. But what makes "The Water Horse" different is its sophisticated, wraparound story, which initially seems at odds with a computer-generated sea-beast. The tale, narrated in the present by a charming old, unnamed fellow (Brian Cox) whose identity is obvious, is actually set during World War II. Angus' father is off to battle in the Royal Navy, leaving the boy, his sister (Priyanka Xi), and mother, Anne (Emily Watson), on an estate billeted by soldiers under the command of a pompous officer (David Morrisey).

The latter has an eye for Anne and suspicions about Anne's mysterious handyman, Lewis (Ben Chaplin), whose preference for isolation is breached by Angus and Crusoe. Interesting cross-currents of psychological complexity make the adult side of this fantasy intriguing, even as director Jay Russell ("My Dog Skip") utilizes excellent effects to underscore Angus' emotionally charged adventures with Crusoe. Visions of Angus riding the Loch Ness Monster through watery depths are not only marvelous to look at, but are imbued with a yearning that will leave many young viewers wistful indeed.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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