If the legendary Scottish Loch Ness monster exists Water Horse imagines how he may have come to be. Based on the book by Dick King-Smith and set during WWII it all starts when Angus (Alex Etel)--a young Scottish lad living with his housekeeper mother (Emily Watson) on an estate while his father fights in the war--finds an enchanted egg by the shores of the local lake. Thinking it another crustacean he takes it home but soon finds himself face-to-face with an amazing creature: the mythical "water horse" of Scottish lore whom Angus calls “Crusoe.” As Angus becomes attached to his new friend the young boy does everything he can to keep Crusoe a secret even as the animal grows abnormally large over a short period of time. With the help of a handyman (Ben Chaplin) Angus soon has to put Crusoe into the lake so he can live comfortably. But outside influences conspire to expose Crusoe--even threaten his life--and Angus risks everything to help his friend. Young Etel expertly carries Water Horse on his small shoulders proving his stellar performance in Danny Boyle’s Millions wasn’t a fluke. He never goes over the top or tries to play it with too much sweetness and light. Instead Etel is a complete natural convincingly interacting with a green-screened creature and most importantly conveys all the right emotions to get the audience just as wrapped up in the sea monster’s plight as he is. The rest of the cast however is a bit misplaced. Watson is mostly wasted as the mother hardened by war who can’t bring herself to tell her young son the truth about his father. The Oscar-nominated actress is simply too good for something this childish. Meanwhile Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) doesn’t really connect with his character a soldier who returns home after being wounded only to wander the country working aimless jobs. The only adult actor who stands out is veteran Brit Brian Cox. As the film’s narrator he plays an old pub patron who tells the true story of Crusoe after two American tourists spy the now-infamous “photo” of the Loch Ness monster. It’s the constant twinkle in his eyes that gets you. Director Jay Russell has a key into family fare having helmed films such as My Dog Skip and Tuck Everlasting so there is an ease to his direction in Water Horse. He guides his young star to deliver an unaffected performance and handles the special effects with a sure hand. Crusoe is awfully cute when he’s a youngster flopping around and making a mess of things. Then when he’s full grown he is quite impressive. The moment Angus faces his fear of water climbs on Crusoe’s back and lets the creature take him for a deep-diving swim in the lake we are hooked by the exhilaration of it. Unfortunately there is also a level of predictability to Water Horse especially when it comes time for Crusoe to escape the lake into open waters before he is killed by the local militia. Not too hard to figure how it all ends up.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.