PLOT: A family separated by the 2004 Asian tsunami tries desperately to reunite. Based on a true story.
BOTTOM LINE: The tsunami comes to life more vividly than the characters, though Watts and young Holland, as her son, deliver strong performances.
CAST: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
A feel-good movie that nevertheless puts you through the wringer, "The Impossible" is based on the true story of the Alvarez Belons, a Spanish family of five separated by the 2004 Asian tsunami. Directed with horror-film flair by J.A. Bayona ("The Orphanage"), "The Impossible" re-creates that still-unfathomable disaster so vividly that the movie almost makes up for its shallower depths.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, here transformed into Brits vacationing in an upmarket Thailand resort with their three sons. When the tsunami strikes -- an astonishing sequence that uses real waves and sized-down sets to terrifying effect -- Maria is swept away with her eldest, Lucas (Tom Holland). Henry is last seen clutching little Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin).
As each party searches the wrecked landscape for the other, it's Maria's story (she contributed to the screenplay) that resonates. Gruesomely injured, increasingly ill and coughing up ropes of hideous black matter (prepare yourself for that scene), Maria never forgets her role as a parent, gently steering Lucas away from panic, terror and his baser instincts. Watts and Holland, both compelling, share the movie's most powerful moments. Henry, who makes some bafflingly bad decisions -- including leaving his small sons with total strangers -- is less appealing.
We don't learn much about this family, which raises the nagging question of what "The Impossible" is finally telling us. Though clearly determined, Henry and Maria are mostly just lucky, and it's hard to see the larger meaning in that. They are also conspicuously white and wealthy, unlike most of their fellow survivors, who provide mostly background misery. We'll never know why God singled this family out, but we know why the movie did.
RATING PG-13 (scenes of destruction and grisly injuries)
CAST Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Watts and young Holland, as her son, deliver strong performances.
Naomi Watts lets kids see her fake wounds
She talked through the story with Sasha, 5, and Kai, 4, to get them used to seeing their mother coughing up blood with a heavily bruised face and deep gashes across her body.
"Yeah, it's not the best way to see Mommy, is it?" Watts says, laughing, in an interview. "They came first time on a day where I had minimal wounds -- nothing too much. . . . And then by the third day they came, they were putting the chocolate powder all over me and painting some wounds on themselves and me. So they understood it.
"I know it's not completely normal. But this is the life that actors live. And we are playing dress-up some of the time."
Watts portrays real-life Spanish doctor Maria Belon, who was swept away by the rush of water with her eldest son and treated in a Thai hospital until she was reunited with her two younger sons and husband, played by Ewan McGregor.
"It was a great pressure and responsibility to get it right because of what she went through and how much she suffered," Watts says of Belon. "And then on top of her story, it was hundreds of thousands of others."
-- Associated Press