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The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (PG) **½

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is one of the family-friendliest films of the year. But even the youngest member of the family may find the story familiar.

The film starts strong but then resorts to a standard film gimmick. Boy meets creature. Boy loses creature. Creature saves the day. This has been done in countless features: Eragon, Harry and the Hendersons, E.T., Free Willy and Loch Ness.

The heart of the movie springs from Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel), a youngster living in Scotland during World War II. He battles with feelings of abandonment and betrayal as he methodically counts down the days until his father’s military service will end. He knows his father’s return will fill the void that is consuming his heart.

A story about how children deal with a parent who has gone to war is an intriguing idea. But the concept gets overshadowed by the film’s computer-generated star, who appears after Angus finds the egg of a water horse.

The boy nurses the creature to life, which sets up some predictable physical humor as the creature turns the household into chaos. It grows so quickly that Angus is convinced by the new handyman (Ben Chaplin) that it needs to be set free in the nearest loch. The arrival of a group of soldiers assigned to guard the loch from German invasion creates a potentially deadly final showdown.

The film snuggles up to themes of love, loss and rebirth. But, as if afraid to make a commitment that might make the movie too heavy for general audiences, director Jay Russell resorts to familiar fare for the final act. That weak conclusion loses even more strength with the kind of special effects you would get in a basic cable TV movie. The Water Horse has some charm. Sadly, it just plays it too safe in the end.