Opening on a pub near Loch Ness, a scientist named Dr. Abernathy steps out for some air. Standing on the shore of the loch, he sees something rise from the water. Astonished, he takes a single photograph before slipping and falling on the rocks, which kills him.
A short time later in Los Angeles, disgruntled freshman college tutor, Dr. John Dempsey (Ted Danson), is obliged to journey to Scotland to replace Dr. Abernathy, who was searching for the Loch Ness Monster. Dempsey is reluctant to do so, as he ruined his respected zoology career after a fruitless three year search for the Sasquatch and is now considered a joke amongst his colleagues. The only reason he agrees to go is because he is broke and cannot pay alimony to his former wife, Caroline, after whom he named a newly discovered species of wasp.
Dempsey travels to Scotland and reluctantly begins on a cryptozoology mission along with Adrian Foote (James Frain), former assistant to Dr. Abernathy and an eager young Scottish man who fanatically believes in the existence of the creature. Dempsey repeatedly claims there is no mystery and that the monster is just a hoax created by the locals of Loch Ness to support their economy. John books into a small inn and meets his grouchy landlady, Laura McFetridge (Joely Richardson) and her nine-year-old daughter, Isabel, who quickly grows close to John.
John quickly finds himself in hot water with the locals, in particular one named Andy McLean (Nick Brimble), who sees Dempsey as a rival for the affections of Laura. The water bailiff, (Ian Holm), guardian and protector of Loch Ness, does all he can to ensure that Dempsey fails in his search and leaves the loch empty-handed. After the sonar equipment is sabotaged by the locals, Dempsey confronts the water bailiff, who insists that the mystery of Loch Ness will never be destroyed. Dempsey challenges him to "come out and watch him". After scanning the entire loch and finding nothing, Dempsey declares it is the end of the Loch Ness monster, leaving Adrian crushed, but the subsequent argument between them ends on a slightly reconciliatory note when Dempsey tells Adrian that, despite his scepticism, he did want to find the monster.
Throughout the film, Laura overcomes her initial dislike of Dempsey and they quickly grow attracted to each other. Isabel possesses a second sight and is able to foretell certain things, such as her mother's growing affection for Dempsey. The day before Dempsey's departure from Loch Ness, Adrian brings him the remainder of Dr. Abernathy's possessions, including his camera. The next morning Adrian is awakened by Dempsey, who says they are going back out for another sweep of the loch. He reveals that after developing the pictures on Abernathy's camera, the last picture on the roll shows a large, rhomboid shaped flipper submerging into the water. After tracking a 40 ft object chasing a school of salmon, it collides with the boat, sinking it and sending Dempsey and Adrian into the water. Dempsey nearly drowns but somehow surfaces after a large dark object is seen moving in the water behind his quickly sinking body. After returning to the inn, he is ecstatic, claiming to have seen the creature while under the water. After Dempsey is beaten up by Andy McLean for "moving in on his woman", Isabel makes him a get well card which features a drawing of what she calls a "water kelpie." Dempsey realises that Isabel, too, has seen the monster, as her drawing of the creature's fins are identical to the picture taken by Abernathy. After Dempsey promises to buy her the red bicycle that she has always wanted, Isabel agrees to show him the monster.
Later that day, Isabel leads Dempsey to an underground cavern beneath Urquhart Castle and warns him not to use lights as it scares the creatures. After a startling encounter with some sea otters, Dempsey prepares to leave, humiliated. Suddenly a plesiosaur rises from the water and Isabel is shown to know it very well, even being able to communicate with it through a series of whistle-like calls. Responding to the calls, a second creature appears, the two animals apparently being mates. While in an astonished euphoria, Dempsey ignores Isabel's warnings and takes a photograph, the flash alarming the creatures, causing them to dive back into the water and cause havoc. Isabel falls into the water and almost drowns and Dempsey is saved by the furious Water Bailiff.
Dempsey develops the photographs and faces Laura's wrath about him using Isabel and nearly getting her killed. Laura refuses to have anything to do with Dempsey or his discovery of the monster, despite his claims that when he reveals the existence of the creatures, Laura's business will boom as people from all over the world come to the loch to see the monsters. Laura evicts John and Isabel is deeply hurt that Dempsey used her in such a way. Upset, but not about to give up his chance at vindication, he leaves for London to attend a press conference at the Natural History Museum where he plans to reveal the photos of the monsters to the world.
The water bailiff follows him on the train, imploring him not to reveal the truth of Loch Ness. Dempsey insists that exposure will be best for the creatures, claiming that science will be able to care for the creatures professionally. Scornful, the water bailiff points out the irony in that it was not science that helped his "discovery", but a little girl. He also reminds Dempsey of the harm done to the planet because of science and that these creatures have survived unaided since before the ice age.
At the conference, Dempsey is unable to go through with it and replaces the real photos with Isabel's drawing of the "kelpie", causing an uproar while he discreetly leaves. On the way out, he tells a baffled Adrian that he had the pictures made by computer before he ever came to Scotland. Adrian, knowing the truth, understandingly plays along. Meanwhile, on a bus headed back to Loch Ness, the water bailiff discovers the pictures inside his suitcase and is moved almost to the point of tears. Dempsey returns to the inn and reunites with Laura, along with the red bicycle he promised Isabel. In Loch Ness, the plesiosaur pair is seen swimming underwater with a baby alongside.Ted Danson as John Dempsey
Joely Richardson as Laura McFetridge
Kirsty Graham as Isabel McFetridge
Ian Holm as Water Bailiff
Harris Yulin as Dr. Mercer
James Frain as Adrian Foote
Keith Allen as Gordon Shoals
Nick Brimble as Andy McLean
Phillip O'Brien as Dr. Abernathy
Edward Hibbert as Scientist (Cameo)
Although partly shot around Loch Ness in Scotland, the external hotel and village scenes, where most of the story takes place, were filmed at Lower Diabaig on the west coast of Highland. The internal scenes of the conference room and the hotel lobby area were shot at John Nike OBE DL's Coppid Beech Hotel in Binfield, Bracknell, Berkshire, England.
The film score by Trevor Jones was released on Perseverance Records 9 September 2005. Originally Rod Stewart's cover of "Rhythm of My Heart" was used during the closing credits of the film, however that is not the version heard on this CD. According to Jones in the CD's liner notes:
"Rhythm of My Heart" is performed here by an artist who could not be identified and not Rod Stewart as in the film.
While the effect of this cryptic statement is reflected in the fact that credit for the version of the song heard on the CD is not stated anywhere in the CD packaging, it is clearly the 1996 Runrig cover of the song.
Starboy Award, 1996, Oulu International Children's Film Festival.