Ashley (Sarah Wayne) and Josh (Joshua Jackson) are on vacation in Canada with their workaholic father, Dr. Jack Black (Mark Harmon), who is too busy writing his novel to spend quality time with them. So Ashley and Josh seek solice by playing around the lake where they discover signs of a creature named Orky living in the water. The discovery of the water creature eventually brings the children closer to their father.
Memorable movie magic isn’t manufactured, it happens. Chemistry between actors, deft photography, a wonderful line of dialogue, an instinctual director–these are some of the many things that can create alchemy on screen. You can’t force it, but MAGIC IN THE WATER tries, with disastrous results. It’s a ridiculous film dressed up as a profound parable, and not even Houdini could escape from the restraints of its strange, labored plot.
A collaboration between first-time director Rick Stevenson and novice screenwriter Icel Dobell Massey, MAGIC IN THE WATER has all the ingredients of what is becoming a sub-genre of family films: the Pacific Northwest poisoned water-creature movie. How many characters and plot devices does MAGIC IN THE WATER share with the FREE WILLY films? There’s a mysterious water denizen with a knack for communicating with children; a kid or two from a broken family looking for love from something with fins; evil cardboard industrialists dumping chemical waste in the creature’s habitat; wise old Native Americans who understand the creature’s methods of communications; Asian scientists who are trying to study the creature, and a whole lot of blubber.
In MAGIC IN THE WATER, 10-year-old Ashley Black (Sarah Wayne) is on vacation near Glenorky, a remote British Columbia ocean side village. With her are her bored teenage brother Josh (Joshua Jackson) and her addled psychiatrist father Dr. Jack Black (Mark Harmon), whose very name should invoke a guffaw. Jack, divorced from the kids’ mom, is a radio talk show host who hasn’t spent much time with his kids. He begrudges the vacation time, and rather than play with his children he prefers to work on a book, though he can’t get past the title page. The village has concocted a minor tourist trade out of its most famous resident, a legendary sea monster named Orky, who is either a hoax or the spiritual link to our collective ancestral past, depending on whether you believe the natives or the hucksters. To probe the creature for possible mass syndication rights, Japanese scientists are building a submersible that looks like the Beatles’ yellow submarine, and they spend most of the movie tightening the bolts on it.
While her cynical brother scoffs, Ashley believes in Orky, and of course the monster responds to the girl’s heartfelt innocence. One night under a full moon (the moon has no other phases in this film), Ashley tries to run away back home, and Orky symbolically picks her up along a seaside road. The creature manifests itself as a sparkle on the water in exchange for some Oreo cookies (which substitute throughout the film for the Reese’s Pieces in E.T.). When Ashley climbs a ladder to a tree house where she has decided to spend the night, the ladder breaks and she starts to fall. But just then her father spots her, dives into the water, and somehow is transported by Orky to the rocks beneath her, just in time to break her fall.
Jack sustains a concussion and awakes in the living room of the town’s resident doctor, who has a home office, is also a shrink and–surprise!–is an attractive and available blond. Dr. Wanda Bell (Harley Jane Kozak) is treating a group of men who all believe they’ve been possessed by the spirit of Orky, and Jack fits right in. Like the rest, he develops an unexplained rash on his stomach and starts acting like a kid. Instead of ignoring his children, he now outplays them, building an elaborate sand castle, seeing animal shapes in the clouds, and digging a hole to China on the beach. He digs because his father wouldn’t help him in the project when Jack was a child; the psychologist is obviously going deep for his lost inner child.
The Asians are around just to be part of a joke. After Jack gets his hole dug about six feet down, a son of one of the scientists, Hiro (Willie Nark-Orn), sees Orky moving offshore and runs along the beach to tell the Blacks, but falls into the hole. Josh comes out from the vacation cottage just in time to see the boy climb out of the hole, and this convinces Josh that his father must have found a passage to China. It’s absurd to think this hardboiled teen would conclude that, but the filmmakers like the joke so much they later repeat it.
Stevenson and Massey create those kinds of self-conscious “magical” moments like assembly-line workers build cars. Beware a of a film which markets itself, in its very title, as “magic.” In one scene, Jack and the kids lie on the beach and Jack shows them how to orchestrate clouds into fireworks and other formations. This is supposed to test the audience’s tolerance for the capacity of imagination to transcend reality, which is part of Orky’s message. It’s a pleasant little piece of nonsense but you get the impression the filmmakers are really straining to create the magical product they advertised.
Another part of Orky’s message is the obligatory environmental one: he’s being poisoned. Two one-armed goons who work for the evil Mack Miller (Morris Panych) are dumping barrels of toxic waste into Orky’s environment. Miller’s business seems to consist solely of manufacturing and dumping hazardous chemicals; in case little ones don’t understand, the barrels ooze yellow slime on the ocean floor. Orky sends his message by making the ears of Jack and the other possessed men buzz with an annoying whine whenever Orky hears the hum of the one-armed guys’ motorboats. The poisoning apparently accounts for the stomach rash.
To make sure audiences aren’t as dimwitted as the earnest, ditzy Dr. Bell in putting all this together, the wise old Indian steps in to explain everything. For most of the film, the camera sneaks shots of this long-haired guy, Uncle Kipper (Frank Sotonoma Salsedo), sitting on his porch near the Black’s cottage. He is supposed to look wise and spiritual, though he acts more like a drug-crazed hippie. Kipper (another name to chortle at) gets the Black kids to help him switch medications and sedate his nurse, and then push his wheelchair deep into the woods. Eventually they can’t push anymore, so he gets up and walks with his cane. It’s not clear whether this is a miracle cure of some sort. Finally, they find a totem with the head of an orca on top, and Kipper explains how in the old days animals could become men and men could become animals and Orky is being poisoned and sending a message through dear old dad. Kipper, like all Native Americans in this genre, knows such things, but why he couldn’t have sat on his porch and told the kids is unclear.
The rest of the plot is even more preposterous and pretentious. Eventually the Black kids and Hiro end up getting trapped in a sinking submarine, and Orky arrives in the nick of time to save them. There is a priceless shot of the three children’s astonished faces looking through the porthole; it is the film’s only high point. The kids and their dad, who falls through his hole on the beach just like Alice going to Wonderland, find Orky’s cave just in time to see the monster on his death bed. It’s supposed to be a hard lesson in the name of ecology–see what happens when bad capitalists dump chemicals in the water?–but it will seem to young children more like needless punishment.
The plot’s ponderous weight drags the film to the bottom, wasting some beautiful cinematography by Thomas Burstyn and some effective naturalistic acting by the young Wayne, an amateur who won the part over 800 others in a Vancouver casting call. Her Ashley is just the right mix of childish wisdom and honest innocence, standing out in a film which is a mix of adult contrivance and patronizing symbolism. Harmon’s goofy enough to hold one’s attention at moments, but mostly he’s insufferable, and the rest of the cast is unremarkable.
My own ten-year-old captured perfectly what’s wrong with MAGIC IN THE WATER in terms of its potential marketing appeal to children. “We should have seen Orky much sooner,” he said. Having a magical monster just long enough for a funeral doesn’t make much sense; it’s worse than Puff the Magic Dragon sadly slipping into his cave at the end of the song. The problem is that Orky, who looks suspiciously like an elongated E.T., is more just a mass of green blubber than a special-effects wonder. Given such a flabby star, there’s more appeal in portraying him as mysterious ripples in the water than in the awful flesh. Instead of Orky shots, there are boring scenes of group therapy, long stretches of mulling about Jack’s mental and physical state, and the repeated attempts to stir up “magic,” including too many shots of the water sparkling in the moonlight. Way too much of the film is adult psychobabble about the importance of recapturing one’s lost inner child. It’s meant to be wondrous, but it’s dreadfully contrived.