The Water Horse is a typical boy’s coming-of-age story, set in World War II Scotland. The “horse” is the Loch Ness monster, and the boy is Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel), a lonely child grappling with the recent death of his father. Angus’s mother is caretaker of a lakeside estate where the boy passes his time collecting shells and daydreaming about his father. One day, Angus discovers an unusual egg-shaped rock, which he takes back to his father’s workshop. Overnight, a cute, horned animal, with flippers for legs, pops out. Angus dubs it Crusoe, and then desperately tries to hide it from his mother. Mrs. MacMorrow doesn’t approve of shell-gathering, and Angus knows she will insist Crusoe be returned to the lake.

Angus soon discovers that Crusoe’s skin dries out if he is not in water, so he fills an old barrel in the workshop, but Crusoe quickly outgrows it. By the time the sea creature wades through a bathtub, a toilet bowl and a fountain, Angus’ secret is out—his sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi), and the estate’s new handyman, Lewis (Ben Chaplin), have seen Crusoe. Angus resists Lewis’ advice, which is to return Crusoe to his natural habitat; still grieving for his father, Angus can’t bear to lose another friend. In the end, Angus’ love for Cruose overcomes his desire to possess him, and with Lewis’ help, Angus frees him. The boy’s maturity is rewarded: When he calls to Crusoe from the dock, the creature, now a giant, arrives to take Angus for an underwater ride.

All is well until British troops are billeted at the estate. Crusoe, now frolicking in the lake, becomes the victim of Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), an ambitious martinet who lobs bombs into the lake, and a sinister soldier with a taste for water horse. Despite the drama, there is nothing in The Water Horse that will frighten young children. The cast is good, and the special effects are even better: They’re from the same artists and animators who worked on The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

The only surprise of The Water Horse is that such stories haven’t changed since The Yearling: Yes, they’re archetypal, but they are invariably about white children, mostly boys, and they reinforce old-fashioned notions of gender and class. There’s no question, for instance, that Mrs. MacMorrow will end up with the handyman and not the Oxford-educated captain. That said, all of the children at a recent New York City screening of the film, which has a running time of nearly two hours, seemed charmed by a giant dinosaur who acted like the family dog. (Thankfully, Crusoe doesn’t talk.) The adults, however, were caught squirming.