An unjust box office flop upon its release, 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes was reportedly intended to be the first film in a new franchise, and it’s a genuine shame that such plans never materialised. Years on, it has become a cult item, and for good reason – this is an exciting action-mystery which delivers robust entertainment for kids and adults alike. And the fact that it works so well is a bit of a surprise, as it’s an American-produced motion picture shot in Britain starring unproven young actors, but the end result is extremely assured, another little-seen ’80s gem which deserves more attention than it gets. As the movie itself acknowledges, the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never delved into the character’s early life, rendering such territory fresh and fertile. Young Sherlock Holmes might be a bit cheesy, but it’s sold with utmost sincerity. It’s simply delightful.
Long before he was London’s top detective, Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) was an intelligent young student at boarding school, and his best friend was the portly, nervous John Watson (Alan Cox). Holmes’ curiosity is piqued by a string of seemingly accidental deaths in the city, with the victims seeing vivid hallucinations which drive them to suicide. Alas, Police chief Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) doesn’t buy into Holmes’ theories, and a school prank leads to Holmes being expelled. Undeterred, Holmes enlists the help of girlfriend Elizabeth (Sophie Ward) and his friend Watson as he seeks to establish a link between the deceased and find the cause of the lethal hallucinations.
By now, the “origins tale” template is well-known in cinema, and the formula has grown repetitive due to how predictable it has become. But Holmes lends himself extremely well to such an endeavour, and it helps that the screenplay by Chris Columbus takes full advantage of the opportunity, with witty dialogue and strong, cohesive, wonderfully old-fashioned storytelling.Young Sherlock Holmes was produced by Steven Spielberg (as well as Henry Winkler, the Fonz himself…), hence the movie is exactly the type of entertaining adventure romp that Spielberg has become renowned for producing. What’s notable about Young Sherlock Holmes is just how fun it is, all the way through to its core. Running at 105 minutes, director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Bugsy) maintains an agreeable pace throughout, and the movie serves up plenty of intrigue, action, and even some rather dark gothic horror moments. It’s a bit tonally similar to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, to the extent that the movie was actually titled Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear in a few territories.
With Spielberg’s backing, this is a gorgeous motion picture. Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography is often eye-catching, taking full advantage of the magnificent period sets and locations, and the candlelit look of multiple scenes is striking. The special effects are brilliant as well, and the movie features the first fully digital character in cinema, which was animated by Pixar (the studio started life as a division of LucasFilm). There is some fine stop-motion animation here as well, and the old-school disposition gives the visuals an old-fashioned charm. Best of all, while Young Sherlock Holmes is a tad goofy at times, Levinson keeps things grounded, never slipping into outright kitsch. The film is also supported by a magnificent score courtesy of Bruce Broughton, whose compositions are flavoursome and have their own unique identity. However, the movie is certainly dark at times, and it’s questionable as to whether or not some content will be suitable for kids. Indeed, a couple of scenes were uncomfortable even for this reviewer. If there is anything to criticise, it’s these occasionally jarring tonal changes.
On a more positive note, the casting is miraculous. Rowe is a pitch-perfect Holmes, nailing his recognisable traits while also being wholly believable in every scene. In fact, it’s surprising that he hasn’t played the gentlemen detective again, as he could carry his own franchise at his current age. Likewise, Cox is a great pick for a young Watson, and Sophie Ward also makes a great impression as Holmes’ love interest. It’s the casting of these performers which makes the movie a great sit for the younger viewers – Rowe is the stalwart hero that boys will wish they could be, Cox is the Everyman that kids can identify with, and it’s hard to imagine any teenage boy not having the hots for a cutie like Ward. Commendably, the movie does not pull any punches in terms of perilous situations despite the protagonists being kids, making the experience all the more satisfying and exciting. If the movie was made today, not a single gun or sword would be drawn, but in this ’80s iteration we get the sense that the teenaged characters aren’t safe from this villainous plot.
Young Sherlock Holmes is best described as a mixture of Indiana Jones and The Goonies in a 19th Century setting, and the result is pure entertainment. It’s respectful to the works of Doyle, and the Sherlock Holmes geeks will have a ball watching all of the pieces of the established mythology fall into place in such a clever fashion. Give me this type of ’80s adventure film over the latest Hollywood extravaganza any day, as it has a special type of charm and heart that simply cannot be replicated anymore. Best of all, it confidently holds up in 2014. And be sure to stick around for a post-credits scene, which definitively wraps up this story and establishes one of Holmes’ most iconic archenemies in a shrewd twist.