When Warner Brothers asked me to screen Lady in the Water, I wondered why; my idea, from the things I'd seen and read about the film, was that the eponymous "Lady" would be a psycho-chick type like the one in The Ring, who could slither out of whatever water the title implied, seek out impure people, and chew their faces off. Plus which, it's an M. Night Shyamalan film, which, as we all know, equals freaky cornfields and dead people who act alive, and the Big Massive Twist That You Should Have Seen But Didn't That Changes Everything At The End. What on earth does a Harry Potter fan want here?
What I found instead was a simple and creative modern fairy tale, one that surprises and is funny and whimsical all at once. It's certainly not perfect - a Harry Potter fan's love for tightly wound plots with smooth exposition won't go fully satisfied here - but it is a realization of a whole new lore and world in which fans can draw upon and play within. And just like Potter, it brings a storybook sequence of events to "real" people - like Hagrid brings magic to Harry, the "Lady" brings myth and fantasy to the film's hero, Cleveland Heep.
My conception of the "Lady" was far, far off; she is not a cannibalistic well-dweller at all, but a nymph, a herald from the "Blue World" who comes to land for some unknown purpose and who provides the film with the main characters' motivation: Get her back home.
In some ways, this film still feels like an M. Night Shyamalan thriller: withheld information results in would-be reviewers shrieking and jumping from their plush-velvet screening room seats. But in most, this is the biggest departure the filmmaker has ever taken from his usual lore. For one thing, there are actual creatures: The film doesn't hold back the identities of the people/things causing the threats, and many of them are not so different from what you would find in The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, including dangerous dogs; giant, swooping eagles, and creatures that seem to be made up of twigs. There's even a sparkling trove under water - while it's tempting to break into a rendition of Disney's "Part of Your World" when this secret treasure is found, the overwhelming feeling is that the lore Shyamalan has created has leagues below it that don't get represented in this film.
Fantasy buffs won't be either thrilled or disappointed; it's not a full-on Tolkien experience or even as fully realized magically as Potter, but there is a whole new mythology to discover, a whole new lexicon of information to play with - a whole new generation of fanfic writers being born every minute.
The "real world" cast of characters are mostly likable, some lovable; as the stuttering Cleveland, the maintenance man who discovers the nymph and leads her through her quest to get back to her home, Paul Giamatti proves his status as a national treasure, the best thing on film since Lucius picked up his snake cane. There's even a critic that [SPOILER] gets appropriately turned to Dog Chow.
Yet while the film does an excellent job of making the new lore seamless with "real life" situations, and bringing elements previously only seen in watercolor drawings into 3-D life, some parts do feel unfinished.
One character's strong knowledge suggests she has an important role in the final payoff, and as new lore, the exposition required to encase it correctly often feels plodding and cumbersome. A big part of the lore does feel missing, however; we're never quite sure why the nymph is pushed onto land, why she makes her appearance when she does, and why we're supposed to care so much. She isn't as clearly defined as Harry, for whom the idea of going to magic school is motivation enough to leave the Dursleys, or who clearly fights in each book to save his life and that of those around him. We're aware of this creature and that she is important, but can't really love her the way we do Harry. I can't root for this girl until I know why she's there and what she truly wants: it's not enough for Frodo to go to Mount Doom because he simply knows that's his role (at least, it isn't for me) - his motivation for slogging there is important, too, and we're not really made aware of such a motivation in this film. Why right now, why this place, why her? Why did she come out of the Blue World? What happened there to push her onto land? Was she just lurking for a long time? I was also left yearning for more information about her origins. Our main character is from a whole other world, and we never see it, and it's barely spoken about.
Yet despite any flaws, I was captivated throughout the film; I wanted the characters to succeed; I was happy when they grew; I was satisfied at the way the mysteries always twined around the plot, how nothing seemed to settle everything, how even after the credits started rolling we knew there was more to discover in the new mythology he has created.
Yet the film does what Harry Potter does so well: it presents new lore as something that you may very well be able to find on your own. Look close enough at the quirky happenings around you, and you may find magic, Harry Potter seems to say; with Lady, Shyamalan may have kids peering into their pools in search of a nymph. But most of all, it's a story for story's sake, a lushly creative piece of new lore that exists with the simple aim of telling a good story for a good story's sake. And when it's done, there's a life outside the film to secretly wonder about. And that's cool. That's what fans are for.