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.
All of Britain is abuzz as "E-Day" approaches. The day when the pound will be converted into euros and the former will no longer be accepted as a valid form of currency. Enter two brothers: wide-eyed 7-year-old Damian (Alexander Nathan Etel) and his 9-year-old fiscally precocious and shrewd brother Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon) who stumble upon a million pounds and are split on what to do with it in the short time they have. They are in agreement on one thing: They will not tell their father (James Nesbitt) about the money. Anthony just wants to spend it on material things but Damian believes the money has been delivered to them by some sort of divine osmosis a miracle from their recently deceased mother. Through the saints he claims he sees and talks to he thinks it is should be given exclusively to the homeless--or anyone deemed worthy by meeting Damian's rigorous criteria…admitting they are poor. He is later crushed to discover that the money's true origin is a heist gone awry as he crosses paths with the obligatory villain posing as a homeless man and threatening Damian to hand over the money or else pay the consequences.
There's a kind of freedom in releasing an indie film in which the biggest name belongs to the guy behind the camera. Rather than worrying about watching mega movie stars it shifts the audience's attention so they can get involved in a complex storyline. Millions is no exception to this rule. The acting is superb all the way around but undoubtedly the two biggest stars of the film are also its smallest. The interplay between two brothers--played by Etel and McGibbon in their feature film debuts--makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall in any family's home. For such young kids they display an amazing skill at being able to capture the subtle nuances generally present in sibling relationships. Throw in the dynamic of their father--played well by Nesbitt a veteran of the British-indie circuit--and his new girlfriend (Daisy Donovan) who threatens to disrupt the family harmony and you feel like a genuine intruder on a family in crisis. But Damian's naive musings help keep the story essentially light vibrant and flowing.
Millions marks a complete about-face for director Danny Boyle. With his previous films he followed along a general path of the same moods and tones: his harrowing take on drugs and decadence in England in the groundbreaking Trainspotting; his hostage-falls-for-kidnapper caper A Life Less Ordinary; his disappointing attempt at a mind trip with The Beach; and his zombie take-off 28 Days Later. It's safe to say that a feel-good family film would not seem the logical next step. But Boyle executes Millions brilliantly showing not only his sensitive side but his flair for the whimsical. Parts of the movie even suggest hints of Tim Burton complete with sinister-sounding choral hymns in the background. With Millions Boyle establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with one of the most versatile directors around today.