"Free Willy" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" are the obvious inspirations for "Magic in the Water," a tepid family fantasy that replaces those child-friendly creatures for a sort of Canadian Loch Ness Monster. (They lure him with Oreos instead of Reese's Pieces.)
Mark Harmon stars as a divorced, cynical Seattle radio talk-show host, a pop psychologist who doesn't have much patience with his patients on the airwaves, and who is such a workaholic that he virtually ignores his two young children, who live with their mother.
So, when his ex coerces him into taking his son and daughter on a vacation up north, he grudgingly packs up his computer and cell phone, planning to work on a book in a remote cabin while the kids play outside.
But when they arrive, the kids become fascinated with the legend of a monster in the lake, which nearby residents in the small town of Glenorky pump up to bring in tourists, calling the monster "Orky."
Harmon's 10-year-old daughter is particularly intrigued when she learns that some local townfolk claim to have been "possessed" by Orky and when Harmon himself comes under the animal's "spell," she thinks it's great. (This element is handled "Close Encounters" style.)
Her older brother, however, is embarrassed as Dad loses interest in his work, begins acting childish and starts digging a huge hole in the sand which he plans to take "all the way to China." (The latter provides the film's funniest running gag.)
Meanwhile, a local psychiatrist (Harley Jane Kozak), who has been treating the townspeople who claimed to have been possessed by Orky, begins paying more attention to him. Can romance be far away?
Eventually, it is revealed that Orky has an ecological message attached to his willful possessions of the locals; he's trying to motivate them to stand up to a corrupt businessman who is dumping toxic waste in the lake.
When he does finally show up, however, Orky looks more like a hot-air balloon than the kind of dinosaurs we're used to seeing in movies these days. This is where the film's budgetary constraints begin to show.
Young children probably won't mind, though, and the cast is quite good, especially Harmon, who is obviously game for the goofy antics he's called upon to perform, and both kids, Sarah Wayne and Joshua Jackson, who give natural, appealing performances.
The film itself, however, is just too lethargic, and though there are a few laughs and some nice moments, it isn't funny or witty or smart enough to be anything more than a benign time-filler.
"Magic in the Water" is rated PG for some violence and a couple of profanities and vulgar remarks.