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We watched two family pet movies fairly close together, one being about an amazing dog, the other being the Lock Ness monster itself. Neither film blew me away, but neither was too painful of a way to spend 90 minutes with your family.

I figured Firehouse Dog was going to be pretty unbearable, and only took a chance on it because there was a free movie channel weekend on DirecTV. It isn't necessarily good, but it turned out to be better than expected. Josh Hutcherson, who plays the lead character Shane, is the main reason the movie didn’t sink into completely worthlessness. He’s a good young actor, that’s been in a bunch of family movies in the past few years, including Zathura and Bridge to Terabithia. He kind of reminds me of a young Christian Bale, and I can see him easily transitioning into an adult actor with adult roles. Of course, only time will tell.

The rest of Firehouse Dog was pretty cliché, extremely predictable from beginning to end; although I did like a few of the bits at the beginning of the film, where we’re shown the dog’s back-story. He’s a Hollywood hotshot, basically the Arnold or Sly (80’s versions), of dog movies and has the movie-star personality to go with it. When a movie stunt goes wrong, he’s lost in the middle-of-nowhere, with no way of communicating who he is. He befriends Shane, whose father is a fire-chief, and his mother is dead. Who decided that nearly every family film had to have a dead or missing parent? It’s extremely rare to see one with a family fully intact.

The dad is played by Bruce Greenwood, an always dependable character actor, he brings a bit of realism to this fairly ridiculous story. His fire station, where apparently only five firemen work 24/7, is on the verge of being closed down by the city. There is also a subplot about an serial-arsonist who killed the chief’s brother. But once wonder-dog shows up, he manages to bring the family together, save the station, and capture the arsonist. All fairly typical movie-dog traits, Lassie pulls off these tricks while getting a flea bath. But Firehouse Dog is a fairly well put-together film, at least for a movie of it’s kind. It’s not too condescending towards its intended audience, although the dog does let a few farts rip. The film isn't good enough to recommended for anyone without a kid younger than 7 or 8, but they should enjoy it. Grade: C (Seen on 6/7/08)

The second film was a lot more ambitious, being a period piece and including a lot of special effects. Water Horse: The Legend of the Deep, takes place in Scotland during WWII; where a family is taking care of a large mansion near Lock Ness. Again a parent is missing, this time it's Dad, who’s been killed in the war, but the youngest son refuses to acknowledge the fact, leading to a couple of dramatic moments. The boy finds a strange egg in the Lock, takes it home to Dad’s shop, where it hatches a small aquatic monster during the night. When the boy first finds the beast, it’s a fairly creepy scene, at least as far as kids movies go. I was surprised it didn’t scare my son to death, with the dramatic music, dark lighting, weird noises and flashing lightning. But he got through it just fine, although I’m not sure most 4-year-olds could handle it.

Afterwards little Nessie is pretty cute, and the boy, his sister and the new maintenance-man make a pact to keep the beast hidden from mom, who obviously wouldn’t approve. This leads to a couple of ridiculous scenes, where the group is force to hide this quickly growing beast in toilets and so forth. Meanwhile, the Scottish army has also set up base on the house’s grounds, believing that a German submarine may find it’s way into the Lock. Soon Nessie is far too large to be kept around the house, leading to a tearful goodbye as they release her into the Lock. But she remains a good friend with the boy Angus, taking him on an exciting underwater ride, hypothermia free and all. Of course there’s a convoluted mix-up with the army, and soon they’re bombing the Lock, leading to all kinds of dramatics surrounding Nessie’s new home.

While nowhere near a great film, I thought that Water Horse was a much more interesting film than the previous one. Some of the effects are pretty laughable, especially when the boy takes a ride on Nessie’s back, but for the most part they sell this fantastical idea. They handle the friendship between the boy and Nessie pretty well, it definitely has an E.T. vibe to it. The Scottish, WWII setting also makes it interesting to watch. Plus the filmmaking is just plain better, there’s some attention to details, with nice photography, good set and costume design, and some good English actors lending their talents; including Brian Cox as the narrator, Emily Watson as the mother, Ben Chaplin as the new maintenance-man and young Alex Etel as Angus is very strong. (Also see him in one of the best family films from the last few years, Millions.) I’d say that the film is well enough made, that it’s actually a worthwhile film if you don’t have kids, although you certainly have to suspend your disbelief for certain scenes. – Grade: B (Seen on 6/7/08)

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