Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Once Over Twice: Young Sherlock Holmes

(1985) Directed by Barry Levinson; Written by Chris Columbus; Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox and Sophie Ward; Available on DVD.

Rating: **** 

Young Sherlock Holmes tells a story that was never envisioned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but feels like it could have been.  Instead of the familiar first meeting between Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes as adults, writer Chris Columbus opens up a new set of possibilities by suggesting that they were introduced as adolescents.  In Doyle’s first story, “A Study in Scarlet,” Watson, a doctor and seasoned war veteran, returns to England from Afghanistan to take up residence with the eccentric and enigmatic Holmes.  In Columbus’ version, Holmes and Watson meet in an exclusive boarding school, Brompton Academy.*  Although such artistic license might have appeared blasphemous to Doyle’s established universe, the new versions of this iconic duo remain true to the originals.

* If the scenes at Brompton Academy look a wee bit familiar, compare them to the interactions between students at a certain other, albeit magical, boarding school.  Coincidence?  It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given Columbus’ involvement with both properties.

Young Sherlock Holmes was unfairly dismissed by critics of the day as just another kids’ action movie.  Undoubtedly because of executive producer Steven Spielberg’s connection, the film was touted by some of its detractors as “Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom.”  As if to reinforce this conceit, Paramount released the film in England under the derivative title, Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear.  Instead of allowing the movie to stand on its own merits, the film company chose to compare it to a known property.  Perhaps as a result of not being permitted to establish its own identity, Young Sherlock Holmes failed to connect with audiences, and performed poorly at the box office.  It certainly deserved better.  Thanks to home video, the film has managed to gain a small but loyal following over the years. 

The game is afoot following a string of seemingly unrelated violent deaths around Brompton Academy.  Holmes suspects that they are somehow linked, and subsequently discovers that the victims’ deaths were preceded by intense hallucinations.  He eventually uncovers a secret Egyptian cult operating in a subterranean temple, where covert and sadistic rituals are performed.  Now to be completely fair to the critics, there are some superficial parallels that can be drawn between the Egyptian cult and the Thuggee villains depicted in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but the similarities seem to be overstated.  

Nicholas Rowe does a fine job as Holmes.  He’s headstrong, a touch arrogant, and thoroughly believable as someone with keen deductive abilities that enable him to be one step ahead of everyone else.  His superior intellect is coupled with an unwavering sense of right and wrong to serve as his compass.  Because these are Holmes’ formative years, however, he’s still subject to the vulnerabilities of youth, impulsive and not quite in command of his emotions (a recurring theme throughout the film).  When Watson first meets him, Holmes is preparing to smash his violin to pieces because he was unable to master the instrument in three days.  While the elder Holmes was seemingly immune to the charms of women, his youthful counterpart is smitten by Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), the niece of his mentor Waxflatter (Nigel Stock). 

In one early scene, we get to see Holmes at work, and a taste of the detective that he will become.  Responding to a challenge from a fellow student, Holmes tracks seemingly indecipherable clues to discover the whereabouts of a missing school trophy.  You can practically see the wheels turning inside his head.  But solving this conundrum is only a gateway drug for Holmes, leading to a larger mystery that’s significantly more compelling and dangerous.  His insatiable curiosity and precocious ability inevitably draws the ire of the obtuse inspector Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths).

Unsurprisingly, Watson (Alan Cox) comes off a little bland compared to Holmes.  Practical to a fault, and lacking Holmes’ keen sense of deduction, he’s the yin to his flashier companion’s yang.  Watson isn’t just a foil for Holmes, but represents a more human, sensible side that’s virtually alien to Holmes.  Watson keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground, while Holmes is off to explore more esoteric pursuits.  He’s simultaneously appalled by Holmes’ impetuous nature and in awe of Holmes intellectual dexterity.

Professor Rathe (Anthony Higgins) serves as a fitting nemesis for Holmes.  Of all the film’s characters, he appears to be the individual most capable of matching wits with Holmes.  He’s as adept with a rapier as he is with his tongue, as evidenced by his fencing match with Holmes.  His charming demeanor masks a coldly calculating mind.

More than 25 years after Young Sherlock Holmes release, the effects still look imaginative, with the victims’ hallucinations realized, thanks to the work of Industrial Light & Magic.  One of the highlights, involving a stained glass knight that comes to life, had the distinction of being the first fully rendered CGI character (and was supervised by Pixar maven John Lassiter).  In another scene, claymation is employed to depict some rogue pastries (That wasn’t a typo!).  Unlike many current movies, these effects enhance the story, and never overwhelm.

Sherlock Holmes purists undoubtedly took issue with Columbus’ fast and loose interpretation of Doyle’s established canon, but the changes have kept the spirit of the stories alive while creating a fresh perspective.  Young Sherlock Holmes stands favorably amidst other “radical” reinterpretations of Doyle’s stories, such as bringing Holmes into the present in the brilliant BBC series Sherlock, or imagining Holmes and Watson as canines in the anime series Sherlock Hound.  This movie could easily have been the first of several adventures, but it was not to be.  It would have been fascinating to see the progression of the characters as they grew up, much as we did with the Harry Potter films.  At least we have this film to enjoy, and we can derive a modicum of comfort from the fact that they didn’t make a disappointing sequel to tarnish the original (Ghostbusters 2, anyone?).  Oh, and be sure to stick around through the end credits for a bonus scene, with another nod to the Sherlock Holmes mythos.


  1. I was wondering if you were going to mention the stained glass knight. I'm glad you did. I like Sherlock Holmes, but I wasn't offended by this movie. Now the recent Guy Ritchie ones, however....

    Have you seen the BBC version of Sherlock Holmas as a modern man? If not, I highly recommend them. It is technically a TV show named Sherlock, but it really consists of three, movie length, episodes per season. There have been two seasons so far. I've seen the first one.

  2. I didn't realise the CGI knight was a cinematic first - fancy that! You're absolutely right about the special effects. They were powerful, frightening even, but did not serve to mask a lack of plot or characterisation, as they tend to do with most modern films I've seen.

  3. Absolutely! The effects serve the film, not the other way around. Thanks for stopping by!