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Young Sherlock Holmes
Tonight's Feature Presentation

YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (1985)

Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alax Cox, Sophie Ward, Anthony Higgins, Freddie Jones, Nigel Stock

Written By: Chris Columbus Directed By: Barry Levinson

The Short Version

A fun reimagination of how Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson first met.

Doyle’s spirit is well represented even as his canonical history is rewritten.

This movie is very nicely cast; it’s easy to see these young men growing into their legendary adult selves.

The first fully-CGI animated character in a live action feature appears here; don’t hold that against the film.

Young Sherlock Holmes is a spirited, reasonably family friendly adventure than anyone can enjoy.  The game is afoot!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

CHEDDAR.

Elementary.


Pairs Well With...

PYRAMID HEFEWEIZEN.

A craft brew out of Berkeley, California, which is also home to a university which I suspect that Mr. Holmes would approve of in terms of forward thinking academics, though he’d have no idea how to handle the social life.

“You're sitting in a room with an all-southern view.  Suddenly, a bear walks by the window.  What color is the bear?”


Do you know the answer?  No grasping at straws by just naming a color; you also have to explain why.

This is a small puzzle that young Sherlock Holmes poses to his new friend, John Watson.  It’s rather whimsical, as far as riddles go, and as such, it captures the spirit of Young Sherlock Holmes very well.  As faithful readers of the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are aware (and if you are not, I do suggest that you correct this oversight as soon as possible; that’s some excellent reading), there is a canonical first meeting between Holmes and Watson, and it occurs when they are both adults, with Watson a physician and war veteran and Holmes well into his “consulting” career.  Even so, it is fun to imagine a “what if” circumstance in which the two meet as young men in school, and given that, the story that screenwriter Chris Columbus has come up with certainly makes for an appealing version of events.

I’ll let Watson, reflecting upon his youthful past, set the scene.

“It was a cold, snowy day in early December.  Lack of funds had forced my old school to close.  I was being sent to a new one in the middle of term.  I was accustomed to the opened, relaxed expanse of the country, and now, I was in the heart of London at the height of the Victorian Era.  The streets were teeming with every activity imaginable.  I was very taken by what I saw.  As I stepped from my carriage, the sight of my new school filled me with fear and apprehension, yet, I was swept with a wave of curiosity.  However, nothing could prepare me for the extraordinary adventure that lay ahead, or the extraordinary individual who would change my life.”

That extraordinary individual, of course, is Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe, Enigma).  Already a staggering intellect, Holmes wastes no time in showing off his deductive powers by guessing at Watson’s entire life story before the new arrival can finish saying hello.  He only misses on two details; he’s young yet.  Though revered by many of his classmates, Holmes is reviled by others, and his friends tend to be members of the faculty, with the exception of a certain Miss Elizabeth Hardy (Sophie Ward, Waxwork II: Lost in Time).  He does, however, take a shine to Mr. Watson (Alan Cox, The Auteur Theory), and the two soon find themselves to be constant companions.

Not long after, Holmes receives a challenge.

“It was the beginning of my second week at Brompton.  With each passing day, my fascination with Sherlock Holmes and his world continued to grow.  On this occasion, the entire school was bursting with excitement.  Dudley had challenged Holmes to a test of ingenuity, skill, and perception.  Dudley had snatched the school's fencing trophy and hidden it in a secret place.  He gave Holmes sixty minutes to find the trophy.  Holmes accepted the challenge with confidence.”

Needless to say, after some spirited detective work, Holmes does triumph with only seconds to spare.

“It was a wonderful, heroic moment for Holmes.  But little did he know that his amazing powers and talents would soon be put to a much greater test, a test of terrifying and deadly proportions.”

Quite deadly.  The first victim is a stranger.  The second is a close friend.  Before all is said and done, Holmes will uncover a dastardly plot with roots that go all the way back to the sands of Egypt, and with talons that threaten the life of someone he holds very dear indeed…

Sherlock Holmes is unquestionably one of the single greatest heroic characters in the history of English literature.  As such, any attempt to rework his legacy into a youthful, family-friendly adventure that goes flagrantly against canon must naturally be met with trepidation.  However, between the pen of Chris Columbus (Gremlins) and the direction of Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam), it turns out – surprisingly, perhaps – that there is nothing at all to fear.  Indeed, the intelligent exuberance of Young Sherlock Holmes proves to be more faithful to the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work than many more traditional adaptations of the original stories, even as does take its considerable share of liberties.

Given the literary roots of Holmes, it seems appropriate to start by looking at the screenplay.  Generally speaking, voiceovers in films are annoying, but here, the narration provides an early token to the viewer that faith will be keep to the spirit of things, given that the original Sherlock Holmes stories were in fact written as reflective narratives related by Watson.  As the story goes on, the reserved awe with which Watson regards his friend is preserved while still allowing Watson to be his own man, even if, here in his youth, he’s still trying to figure out who that man might be.  Indeed, another of this screenplay’s great strengths is how it keeps faith with the original characters but does not simply write them in as the same people they’d be as adults, just in younger clothes.  Watson and Holmes are recognizable, yes, but they are still finding themselves.  There are pieces missing, and they’re logical ones.  Some pieces are discovered during the course of this story, but even when it’s over, the transition isn’t complete, nor should it be.  They both still have growing up to do, and this adventure is but a glimpse.  But what a glimpse.

The choice to give the plot of the adventure Egyptian roots is an interesting one, and it plays very well.  This does, after all, take place during the middle of the great era of British exploration in Egypt, and let’s face it: Anubis cults and pyramids in the middle of London are inherently exciting.  As is sword play, and as are mysterious poisons delivered on darts shot from blowpipes.  This story has all these things, and more; there really is no better word for it than “adventure.”  In all of the best ways, it borrows pages from the adventures of Indiana Jones without actually trading our hero’s deerstalker for a fedora.

Very nice touch, by the way, on explaining the hat, and the pipe.  Subtle, but points well made.

If anything in the script for Young Sherlock Holmes caused character aficionados to cringe, though, it was providing the young man with a romantic interest, since generally speaking, the idea of anyone provoking anything even remotely similar to such feelings in Holmes whose name is not Irene Adler is considered akin to sacrilege.  Again, though, Chris Columbus walks the tightrope with the skill of a cat, and at the end of the day, it all makes sense, both in terms of this story, and what the consequences thereof would mean for all of those that followed.

This, my friends, was not a screenplay that someone whipped up in a day and a half.

The screenplay also benefits from fine performances across the board.  Nicholas Rowe is entirely natural as young Sherlock Holmes, and Alan Cox is delightful and engaging as young Mr. Watson.  (I especially like how he plays the “evil pastry” sequence.)  Quietly stealing the show, though, is Sophie Ward, who goes a long way toward convincing even the most doubtful of audiences that indeed, some young lady could have turned Sherlock’s eye once upon a time.  The young leads are backed up by some fabulous talent, including Nigel Stock (The Great Escape) and fan favorite Freddie Jones (Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), among others, none of whom hits a wrong note.

Speaking of…

It’s not a wrong note in this movie, though it would be for so many others in the future: Young Sherlock Holmes is the first movie to feature a character that is entirely computer generated.  The reason that it works here is the fact that this character is a hallucination in the form of a man depicted in a stained glass window stepping out of the glass and coming after someone, and in fact, it plays quite well.  Could even Sherlock Holmes have predicted the horror that this would beget in time, I wonder?

Whether he could have done so or not, what is elementary here is that Young Sherlock Holmes is a fun, enjoyable adventure, and even though it’s reasonably family friendly and does feature adolescents as its leads, that doesn’t mean that it’s not appropriate for adults without younger people present.  It’s certainly more sophisticated than the average “mystery” millions of adults park themselves in front of every week on television; that’s for certain.

Bottom line, Young Sherlock Holmes is one of those movies that’s somehow retreated back into a dusty corner and absolutely deserves to be rediscovered.  Thanks to an excellent script that reimagines the title character’s youth and an excellent cast to bring it to the screen, the game truly is afoot with this adventure.

Oh, and if you haven’t figured out the answer to the riddle up top, it’s more fun to watch Watson figure it out during the course of the movie than to have me to you outright or to cheat by looking it up.  There are plenty of other reasons to watch Young Sherlock Holmes, of course, but I certainly don’t want to steal one from you.

I will suggest, though, that you consider where exactly the room would need to be in order to have an all-Southern view.

“As I watched Holmes settle into his seat, a sudden feeling came over me that I would most certainly be seeing him again.  So ended my first adventure with Mr. Sherlock Holmes.  As I watched his carriage disappear into the distance, I realized that I had forgotten to thank him.  He had taken a weak, frightened boy and made him into a courageous, strong man.  My heart soared.  I was filled with confidence.  I was ready for whatever mystery or danger lay ahead.  I was ready to take on the greatest and most exciting adventure of them all, and I knew it was bound to involve Sherlock Holmes.”

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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