The Water Horse

“The Water Horse” is set on the banks of Loch Ness, and it’s about a reptilian creature that lives in the lake and becomes famous, and someone stages a photo that turns out looking exactly like the iconic picture of the Loch Ness Monster — yet the movie never refers to it as “the Loch Ness Monster.” Everyone calls it a water horse, after a beast from some old Scottish legend. Does the real Loch Ness Monster own the rights to that name? Is “water horse” the generic version? Is this like when a movie wants to have a character who’s in the Boy Scouts, but the real Boy Scouts won’t give their permission, so they call him a “Junior Camper” instead?

Am I obsessing over tangential matters because the movie itself is forgettable and kind of dumb and I don’t feel like talking about it? Yes. You know me so well.

Oh, it’s harmless enough, as family movies go. It’s not substantially different from “Free Willy” or “E.T.” or any of the other boy-and-his-pet flicks. It’s directed by Jay Russell, whose “My Dog Skip” is one of the more delightful such films of recent years, though this one is a major step downward, quality-wise.

“The Water Horse” is set during World War II in a small village near Loch Ness. I would point out that the Loch Ness Monster legend was already well established by this time in real life, but that would be obnoxious of me. Our protagonist is Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel, from the fantastic “Millions”), a lonely little boy who counts the days until his daddy is due home from the war. He is afraid of the water and of most other things. His sister hears he spent a day at the lakeshore and asks their mother if he had fun. Mum says, “Fun? Angus?”

Maybe it wasn’t “fun,” per se, but he did find a giant egg buried in the sand and bring it home. It hatches; out pops a cute little computer-generated baby dinosaur with an insatiable appetite. He hides it in the shed and feeds it secretly, but it is soon too large to be hidden. It needs the bathtub, which means Angus must let his sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi) in on the secret. The family’s new handyman, a somewhat mysterious fellow named Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), also finds out. The kids’ mother (Emily Watson) is kept in the dark. You know how moms get when they find out a prehistoric creature is living in the bathroom.

Meanwhile, the army has billeted a batch of soldiers at the MacMorrow estate (which actually belongs to a wealthy gentleman; the MacMorrows are merely tenants). Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey) has been sent here to make sure the Germans don’t try to use Loch Ness as an entry point into Scotland. There’s not actually much danger of this; we gather someone really just wanted to get Capt. Hamilton out of the way for a while. For his part, Hamilton takes his duty very seriously, though not so seriously that he can’t develop a crush on Mrs. MacMorrow. When she starts to favor the freewheeling Mowbray, Hamilton is jealous.

Based on a novel by Dick King-Smith and adapted by Robert Nelson Jacobs (“Chocolat”), the movie is equal parts childish whimsy and bad-guys-want-to-kill-whatever-they-don’t-understand adventure drama. In the former category, there’s a scene where a still-small water horse gets chased by a bulldog through a fancy dinner party, resulting in spilled gravy and people saying, “Well, I never!,” and so forth. In the latter category, well, there are all those military guys hanging around, and you know how they like to shoot things. “They are trained killers, after all,” Capt. Hamilton tells Mrs. MacMorrow.

All of it is framed by scenes set in a Scottish pub in the present, where an old man played by Brian Cox tells young travelers the story. All my affection for Brian Cox as an actor could not stop me from giggling every time he appeared on the screen, overdoing a Scottish accent and being all mysterious with his story. Be prepared for a huge shock when it’s revealed at the end that HE is Angus!!!!!!!!!! (Sorry. Spoiler warning!)

The Loch Ness Monster — whoops, water horse — special effects are pretty good, particularly when the creature is still young and cute and of a manageable size. It’s a movie for kids, and I suppose they will like it well enough, its pedestrian story notwithstanding.

C+ (1 hr., 51 min.; PG, a little very mild profanity, general peril and danger.)