In present-day Scotland, an American tourist couple go into a bar where they meet an old man who tells them a story about the Loch Ness Monster.
In 1942 Scotland, a boy named Angus MacMorrow lives in the large manor house of Lord Killin on the shores of Loch Ness with his mother Anne MacMorrow (the housekeeper), his sister, a cook, a maid and an old gamekeeper. Later, they are joined by Lewis Mowbray, who comes to work as a handyman in the manor. Angus' father Charlie —Killin's former handyman— is now a sailor in the Royal Navy and has been missing since his ship was sunk in the war a year ago; Angus is unable to accept that it is unlikely he will ever come home.
One day, while collecting seashells, he discovers what appears to be a large mysterious egg in the sand, which he leaves it in his father's shed. When he returns later, an unknown creature hatches (which he calls 'Crusoe' after Robinson Crusoe) that becomes the fabled Loch Ness Monster. Angus keeps the creature a secret, but eventually tells his sister and (reluctantly) Lewis about it. Lewis explains to Angus that it is a genderless "Water Horse" that lays one egg, then dies before it hatches.
The next day troops of the 12th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery arrive at the house, commanded by Captain Thomas Hamilton — a friend of Lord Killin, who is serving with the Royal Air Force. An artillery battery is set up near the lake as defence against possible attacking or hiding German U-boats and the troops set up camp on the grounds of the house. An anti-submarine net is also raised at the mouth of the lake to prevent the possible entrance of German U-boats into the lake.
One night, when the men are invited into the house for dinner, Crusoe breaks free, and roams the house, running into the cook's bulldog "Churchill" which chases him into the dining room. Unnoticed, Churchill is blamed for the mess. Meanwhile, Crusoe spends the night in a fountain feeding on the fish, where the next day, Lewis finds he has grown so big that he and Angus have no choice but to let him roam wild in the loch.
Captain Hamilton proclaims Lewis to be a bad influence, and persuades Angus' mother to allow him to teach Angus some discipline and make a soldier out of him. However, after a few days, Angus escapes and returns to the lake, where Crusoe grown as an adult, encourages Angus to ride on its back. After some time, it begins to dive underwater, coming to the surface from time to time for breathing. Angus, having aquaphobia, protests diving, but later enjoys himself (finally overcoming his phobia of the sea).
The English Captain takes the MacMorrow family to Loch Ness to impress Anne; Crusoe suffers from shock after almost getting hit by an exploding shot from a cannon ("Victoria") shot on the lake during a firing demonstration. Angus interrupts to save Crusoe from injury or death, but enrages Hamilton and irates his mother in the process. Angus is slapped in the face, yelled at and confined to his room for a month as punishment for acting out for his apparent imaginary companion and blowing up the cannon, interrupting the demo.
Two old fishermen who previously saw Crusoe, attempt to take a photo of the creature for fame and fortune. When they realize that they won't be able to photograph the real thing thanks to Victoria, they decide to create an imitation. (The result is the real-life faked picture of The Loch Ness Monster known as "The Surgeon's Photo".) The photo piques the interest of a few soldiers, who venture out on the lake at night to hunt it.
Kirstie, Angus's sister lets him sneak out of his room and to the lake. When Angus calls for Crusoe, he rises but is still in shock from the earlier bombardment, out of fear and rage, he nearly bites off Angus's hand before sinking back into the loch. Angus blames this on Lewis for letting him free. Churchill, having caught Crusoe's scent at the shore where he reconciled with Angus, alerts the soldiers of its presence; Crusoe surfaces, only this time he has the advantage in size. The cook notices that the barking suddenly stops where it is presumed that Crusoe devoured Churchill or scared him off. The surprise attack proves futile for the soldiers, as Crusoe easily capsizes their boat. Angus attempts to calm Crusoe down and wades into the lake where he loses his footing and sinks. Crusoe comes to Angus' rescue and saves his life. When his mother arrives, she finally believes in her son when she sees Crusoe. However, new guns from the nearby artillery battery open fire upon Crusoe, mistaking it for a German U-Boat. Crusoe attempts to jump over the anti-submarine net but instead crushes it with its weight and escapes from the lake.
At sunrise with his mother, Angus finally accepts his father's fate as they watch Crusoe's departure from afar in the open sea. It is implied that Anne is also ready to move on, having fallen in love with Lewis, himself an honorably discharged veteran (whom Hamilton earlier accused of being a deserter or coward, considering himself a superior suitor and father figure).
Over the years, several people claim to have seen Crusoe, but Angus never saw it again. The tourists ask the old storyteller's name, which he reveals to be Angus MacMorrow. Outside the pub, a mother calls out to her son, who is walking down the beach and spots a rock, which has an iridescent shell beneath just like Crusoe's, hinting that Crusoe has died, leaving a descendant behind to become the next Water Horse.Alex Etel as Angus MacMorrowBrian Cox as Older Angus MacMorrowEmily Watson as Anne MacMorrowBen Chaplin as Lewis MowbrayDavid Morrissey as Captain Thomas HamiltonPriyanka Xi as Kirstie MacMorrowMarshall Napier as Sgt. StrunkJoel Tobeck as Sgt. WalkerErroll Shand as Lt. WormsleyCraig Hall as Charlie MacMorrowGeraldine Brophy as Gracie
Director Jay Russell first read Dick King-Smith's book years before the film was actually made. "With the technology where it was at the time and the cost of that technology, we couldn't get it made then," said Russell. "Technology needed to catch up. It did, and it allowed us to do things I envisioned without it costing $300 million."
Filming took place in 2006 in New Zealand, Scotland and at Miramar Studios in Wellington. Most of the film was shot in New Zealand, with Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu doubling for a Scottish Loch. The filmmakers found that some of the landscape and geography there was similar to Scotland. However Russell said, "There was no way I was going to make a movie about the Loch Ness monster and not shoot at least part of it in Scotland."
The scenes in and around the MacMorrow family's house were shot on the 100-year-old Ardkinglas Estate on the shores of Loch Fyne in Scotland. The owners of the estate continued to live in the house while the crew was filming there.
Visual effects on the film were handled by New Zealand visual effects specialists Weta Digital and Weta Workshop who mainly did Crusoe. Most of the roughly 600 effects shots in the film involved Crusoe. And many of those shots involved the creature (Crusoe) interacting with water, which, in terms of the history of computer graphics, has always been a particularly difficult substance to deal with. In terms of the design of the creature, Weta Digital tried to not humanize him but instead based some of his expressions on real animals such as a dog. "We wanted to create something which seemed familiar, but was unique at the same time," said Russell. "As a result, Crusoe’s face is a combination of a horse, a dog, an eagle and a giraffe." When creating his movements and body shape at various stages of growth, the animators referenced animals ranging from baby birds to seals to whales.
The score was composed by James Newton Howard. Sinéad O'Connor contributed to the soundtrack with "Back Where You Belong".
The Water Horse was formerly scheduled for two different release dates in North America: September 21, 2007 and December 7, 2007. No reason has been given as to why either date was dropped, but the film was released across 2,772 screens in the United States, Canada and Mexico on Christmas day of 2007. The MPAA rated the film PG for some action and peril, mild language and brief smoking.
Many release dates ranging from January 2008 to April 2008 were set for worldwide audiences, including France (February 8), the United Kingdom (February 13), Russia (March 6) and India (April 4).
A promotional poster for the film, featuring silhouettes of Etel's character and Crusoe on the loch, was seen as early as June 2006 during the New York Licensing Show alongside promotional art for the Disney Fairies and Kung Fu Panda. Another poster that features Etel's character with Crusoe on the loch during the daytime was released in October 2007. Two teaser trailers were released in quick succession in June 2007. The first was a teaser created specifically for the Rock Ness Music Festival on June 9 and 10, but was leaked onto the internet and later pulled. A different trailer was released to Yahoo.com on 22 June 2007 and became the official teaser. Internet promotion includes several different official different websites in the English (with individual websites for the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia), Spanish, French and Russian languages. They were launched by Sony in early November 2007 and feature photos, video clips, a video blog, games and information on the film's plot and production. Another website was created by the film's production companies, asecretthisbig.com, and is dedicated to the examination of the Loch Ness Monster's existence in reality. Additionally, the film has a YouTube account which features the video blogs from the official website, as well as additional video content. Two sweepstakes were created for The Water Horse. The first, "See It To Believe It," awarded the winner with a family trip to the Aquarium of the Pacific. The second, "Unloch the Legend" awarded the winner with a family trip to Scotland. A 15-meter "water screen" was used to project a moving image, with sound, of the Water Horse in Tokyo Bay.
The film received generally positive reviews from critics. As of 2014, the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 74% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 89 reviews, classifying the film as "fresh", reaching the consensus that "The Water Horse is a fine family film. It takes a classic tale and infuses it with extra imagination, sly humor, heart, and inventive special effects." Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 71 out of 100, based on 24 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Pete Hammond of Maxim magazine gave the film 4 stars out of 5, saying "It's not only the perfect holiday movie, but perhaps the most wondrous film of its kind since Schindler's List touched down." Hammond said the character Angus is "expertly played by Alex Etel," said the film was "skillfully directed by Jay Russell", and said the special effects were "stunning" and "rival the year's best." Roger Ebert awarded the film three and a half stars out of four, complimenting the film's "real story about complex people" and the "first rate supporting performances" of Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and Brian Cox.
The film does take some liberties with Scottish geography:The opening shot is of Eilean Donan Castle which is on the west coast of Scotland, some 35 miles west of Loch Ness.A panning shot past Urquhart Castle (which is on the shore of Loch Ness) reveals some large islands in the loch, but Loch Ness contains no such islands.The film plot has Loch Ness opening directly into the sea via a wide channel between high cliffs, making it a saltwater loch. In fact, Loch Ness is a freshwater loch with its surface some 80 ft above sea level, and is connected to the sea (about 5 miles to the north) by the shallow River Ness, which flows through the City of Inverness. For this reason, anti-submarine nets would not have been needed on Loch Ness, as no submarines would have been able to navigate the river, even if there had been important military targets in the loch (which there weren't); the actual operation of the anti-submarine nets shown in the film owes little to reality.During the underwater sections the Loch has fairly clear waters. In reality Loch Ness has very opaque waters, with visibility mostly being a lot less than 5m.
The film also has some chronological inconsistencies:The production of the "Surgeon's Photograph" of the monster is shown as part of the plot, though this photo was originally published in 1934. In the film, the "Surgeon" is unable to catch a photo of the actual monster, and instead rigs up a fake monster for purposes of the photograph.Angus has a toy ship which is clearly seen and is the SS United States – but this ship was not built until 1952.
The film was a moderate box office success and grossed about $9 million during its opening weekend. As of October 2010, the film has grossed a total of $103,071,443 worldwide due to gaining about $40.4 million in the United States and about $62.1 million in foreign countries, according to the website Box Office Mojo.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 8, 2008, with 646,841 units sold in the opening weekend for a total of $12,678,084. As of 2012, 1,611,757 units had been sold for a total of $30,598,707.