Thursday, July 19, 2012

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Title: Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward


Young Sherlock Holmes is the kind of children’s film that Steven Spielberg used to produce during the eighties, a time when he really had a knack for making these types of films. I’m talking about films like The Goonies (1985), Gremlins (1984), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Hook (1991). The last film that Spielberg produced that captured a similar vibe was Super 8 (2011), and that’s because director  J.J. Abrahams worships the ground that Spielberg walks on. The Adventures of Tin Tin (2011) was a good one as well. Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes is the 'forgotten' one of the bunch, it never reached the level of popularity that all these other movies reached during the 80’s and 90’s, but still, I have to say it was a fun ride.

This film attempts to show us the first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and his investigative partner Watson. We get to see their first adventure together. A scroll during the films opening credits tells us that this film isn’t based on any of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, but that it is obviously inspired by them. The film was written by director/writer Christopher Columbus before he’d ever directed a film himself. You see, Chris Columbus started out as a writer, and truth be told he wrote a great bunch of children’s films. In fact, he seems to really understand and get the pre-teen demographic very well, he’s the guy who wrote Gremlins, The Goonies, and the awesome animated children’s film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989), don’t know how many of you guys have seen that one, but I highly recommend it, it is a great escapist fantasy with some wild dream like visuals. It is in my opinion a criminally underrated film! He then went on to direct Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and Home Alone (1990) amongst many other box office successes. So we have a good writer here paying tribute to the beloved character of Sherlock Holmes.

The story for Young Sherlock Holmes is similar in some ways to Guy Ritchie’s excellent Sherlock Holmes (2009) because it is also about a secret cult that exists deep within the bowels of the London city streets. Both films deal with similar themes as well: religion is all about illusions; about making you see things that are not there. In Young Sherlock Holmes, Holmes and Watson investigate why random people seem to be dying out of fear! Apparently people are seeing things that attack them and here’s where the film offers us some of its more imaginative special effects. By the way, it is important to mention that Young Sherlock Holmes excels with its visual effects; some scenes used more traditional forms of special effects like stop motion animation, while other scenes were downright groundbreaking for their time.

In fact the effects work on this film was so groundbreaking that it was nominated for the best visual effects Oscar that year, unfortunately Cocoon (1985) beat Young Sherlock Holmes for the award. In all honesty it was Young Sherlock Holmes who should have taken home the Oscar. Why? Because this film was one of the ones responsible for giving birth to CGI! The film has this famous scene –a milestone of modern cinema really- where a stained glass knight comes alive and tries to kill the vicar of the Christian church. By today’s computer animated standards this scene is child’s play, but back then it was groundbreaking stuff. The scene took the guys at Pixar (who still worked for George Lucas’s Industrial Lights and Magic back then) six months to achieve, and it only lasted 30 seconds! It was the first film to mix live action with a computer generated image. Young Sherlock Holmes along with other films like Rock and Rule (1983), 2010: The Year we Make Contact (1984) and The Last Starfighter (1984) were the cinematic parents of the computer generated visuals that are so popular in today’s films, so that alone makes Young Sherlock Holmes an important film. 

But effects alone do not make this one a worthy watch; the film benefits from a genuine love for its source material. You can tell that Chris Columbus was aware that he was dealing with a beloved character, and so he paid his respects to it by treating the character accordingly. We get to see the first time Holmes wears his famous hat, we get to see where he gets his coat, his pipe, and we get to hear him say “the games a foot!”  a couple of times. There’s little nudges here and there to previous Sherlock Holmes films and books. And then there’s the fact that Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox fit their characters to perfection. Some have noticed similarities between the Harry Potter books/films and this particular film and I’d have to say the similarities are pretty blatant. For example the story takes place in a school in England; we get two boys and a girl as protagonists, a trio of friends. The teachers in the school form an important part of the story and finally, Christopher Columbus, the guy who wrote Young Sherlock Holmes actually ended up directing the first two Harry Potter films. Who knows, maybe J.K. Rowling was a true fan of this film and was inspired by it to write her books? It wouldn’t surprise me that much. So anyways, that’s it boys and girls, what we have here is an enjoyable adventure film that displays some true love and affection for its source material. Highly recommend it if you want to see a good children’s film with some innovative effects.            

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5


Fritz "Doc" Freakenstein said...


This is one of my favorite films from the period!

One of the reasons I believe that it is largely forgotten is that the more ardent Sherlockians dismissed it because it disregarded cannon. Yes, Doyle's "A Study in Scarlet" clearly establishes this as Holmes' and Watson's first meeting, so that makes Young Sherlock Holmes an alterate history stroy, which is just fine with me.

You're so right in congratulating the three leads. The chemistry between them is wonderful! It's also nice to see that as a teen that Sherlock was a normal boy and found girls interesting.

The action sequences also are very reminisant of the Indianna Jones films, which is why this film is so imminently re-watchable!

Jack Thursby said...

Yeah, really liked this movie. Despite the fact it goes against the Holmes canon I thought this was pretty good. Rowe and Cox made a great double act. Shame they didn't make any sequels because I'm certain that was the intention.

Gotta say the bit at the start when the guy starts hallucinating that the turkey he's about to eat has come to life gave me nightmares of weeks!

There's absolutely loads of Harry Potter connections. I can't remember where it is but some one wrote hundreds of pages on the similarities between the two.

One of the biggest bits of thief though seems to be the mummification sequence which seems like a direct lift from Temple of Doom. Thought Spielberg would have changed this being the producer?

Franco Macabro said...

@Fritz: Yeah, they obviously took a few liberties with Holmes and Watsons's original meeting place, but for the most part it's a pretty good Holmes film, the character feels true.

Yeah, in regards to Holmes finding women interesting, I believe with this film they wanted to establish why in the books and films Holmes is womanless for most of his life.

Agree about the Temple of Doom connection, many other reviewers have compared it to that film, I guess Spielberg producing had a lot to do with that, and the fact that Temple of Doom had just been released and been a huge success just one year before Young Sherlock Holmes.

@Jack Thursby: The hallucinations are the big highlight of this film! For me the freakiest hallucination was the one with all the pastry coming alive and trying to force itself down Watsons throat!

As for the mummification sequence, Temple of Doom got a lot of heat for being a little too graphic for kids, which is true, I mean guys get their hears ripped right out of their chests and stuff, people get burned alive, but I still see Temple of Doom as a kids film; it's just so much fun. But I'm guessing with this film, Spielberg and Levinson were trying to give a more 'kid friendly' version of a similar story.


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