RATING |

In "The Water Horse," the mystery of the Loch Ness monster morphs into something that looks a lot like "Free Willy."

It's a boy-and-his-water-pal yarn starring ultra-cute Alex Etel ("Millions") as a Scots lad who finds a mysterious egg on the beach.

He takes it home, it hatches, and so does a fairly ambitious story of loss and recovery set in WWII, built around some fairly decent special effects.

Little Angus (Etel) is a troubled, lonely kid, isolated on a large estate owned by his father, off serving in the Royal Navy.

Angus is unable to fill the void in his life until he finds the egg, which becomes a mischievous flippered creature - one that grows at an alarming rate -that he keeps in the bathtub.

Angus works desperately to keep the creature from being noticed by the military men bivouacked at the estate, or worse, by his mother (Emily Watson).

He finds confederates in his sister and a mysterious/sympathetic handyman (Ben Chaplin). Together they devise ways to hide the creature while readying him for a return to the sea, scenes that give the movie a comic lift.

This is predictably difficult for little Angus, who's formed the first meaningful emotional attachment since his father's departure.

And just as predictably, the boy learns that if you love something, you should set it free. If it comes back, be careful, because as an adult it weighs 10 tons and eats meat.

The blueprint will be familiar to most adults, but younger viewers should like it. A capable British cast brings life to the characters, and the movie's computer animators do a good job with the monster, from playful "pup" to formidable adult.

The movie gets a bit shrill toward the end, with a plot that has British gunners trying to blow the creature out of the water as it makes a desperate run for freedom.

Fear not. Fate is on his side, as is the future of Scottish tourism. *

Produced by Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae, Barrie M. Osborne and Charlie Lyons, directed by Jay Russell, written by Robert Nelson Jacobs, music by James Newton Howarddistributed by Columbia Pictures.