Paramount // 1985 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 23rd, 2010
"A deductive mind never rests, Watson. It's not unlike a finely tuned musical instrument. It demands attention and practice."
There is a long list of '80s movies I missed out on as a kid. Though I've caught up on a lot of them over the years, just as many have fallen to the wayside. With so many new movies and television shows -- plus a hefty helping of adult responsibilities -- it's getting harder and harder to make time for things I should have watched when I was younger. That's one thing I love about writing for DVD Verdict. Every once in a while I get the excuse to cross one of those missed movies off my list. I remember seeing footage from the Steven Spielberg-produced teen adventure Young Sherlock Holmes around the time it came out. It looked cool back then, especially the stained glass knight come to life, but by the time I got around to watching it a full quarter decade after it was released, I figured the best I could hope for was a pleasant night of cheesy '80s thrills.
Boy was I wrong.
I can't believe I missed out on Young Sherlock Holmes for this many years. I can't believe no one ever asked me whether I'd seen the movie, looked at me with disbelief when I said I hadn't, then sat me down in front of a TV and forced me to watch it. It is an awesome movie -- not an awesome kids movie, not an awesome '80s movie. It's just plain awesome. Part Indiana Jones, part Goonies, and part Masterpiece Theater; Young Sherlock Holmes is fun from beginning to end -- an action-packed thrill ride with a satisfying mystery, rock-solid acting, and creepy scenes that earn its PG-13 rating.
On his first day at Brompton Academy, a London boarding school, the teenaged John Watson (Alan Cox, John Adams) meets a strange young man by the name of Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe, Doctor Who: Dreamland). The boys become quick friends, and Holmes introduces Watson to his girlfriend, Elizabeth (Sophie Ward, MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis), and her eccentric uncle -- who, besides being a retired schoolmaster and inventor, is Holmes's mentor in the art of logic and detection. Around the same time, Holmes learns about a series of bizarre deaths. What appears to be fits of suicidal insanity in otherwise normal men is the result of a powerful hallucinogen administered by an unseen assailant. When Elizabeth's uncle becomes the killer's next victim -- stabbing himself while under the influence of the powerful drug -- Holmes vows to find the person responsible. Although his investigation is hampered by having just been expelled, Watson and Elizabeth rally to his side. But when their investigation takes them to an Egyptian temple hidden in the city; they find themselves caught in a dangerous web of conspiracy, betrayal, and murder.
On paper, there's no way Young Sherlock Holmes should work. It's an American-made movie, filmed in England, that plays fast and loose with a beloved literary character and relies heavily on early computer-generated special effects. Oh, and it stars three relative unknown actors, all of whom are teenagers. Sounds like a recipe for disaster -- but it's not. Rather than being the worst kind of cultural hybrid, it brings out the best of British acting and American action, combining them seamlessly in a way that never feels like one is being sacrificed for the other.
It probably shouldn't be a surprise that heavyweights like executive producer Steven Spielberg, director Barry Levinson, and screenwriter Chris Columbus would come together to make a great movie. Of course, big names behind the camera don't always guarantee success. You need onscreen talent to make that happen. Luckily, Young Sherlock Holmes has it in spades. Although it features strong performances by British character actors like Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Anthony Higgins, and Nigel Stock; the bulk of the movie is on the shoulders of three teenaged actors: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, and Sophie Howard. Maybe because British accents make anyone sound like they know what they're doing, or because all three are darned fine actors (I suspect its more the latter), these teens are convincing not only in this story, but as early incarnations of major literary characters. Cox's pre pre-med Watson is only his inability to grow a mustache away from being the world's most famous sidekick. Howard's Elizabeth is lovely and poised, and her affection for the young detective is believable and heartbreaking. It is Nicholas Rowe, however, who owns the movie. There is never any doubt that this teenager will grow up to be Sherlock Holmes. This wouldn't be Chris Columbus's last foray into British boarding school adventures, of course, and Young Sherlock Holmes feels like an early draft of the Harry Potter films, trading magic spells for keen observation. In many ways, it's better than those movies, especially when it comes to the performances of its teenaged stars.
Not that Young Sherlock Holmes is going to be confused for the latest BBC period drama. It is, at its core, an action adventure -- filled with sword fighting, ancient cults, and deadly pastries. The movie it is probably most compared to is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which came out a year before it and was made by many of the same people. In fact, it was released in Britain under the title Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear to capitalize on Temple of Doom's success. The two movies do have a lot in common, like big action set-pieces, sword-wielding cultists, and ritual human sacrifice. But Young Sherlock Holmes stays out of "me too" territory thanks to its overwhelming British-ness. It also uses the hallucinogenic murder plot as an excuse to pile on the special effects, adding a layer of supernatural creepiness to a relatively grounded murder mystery. The killer coat rack that drives the first victim out of his bedroom window would have been right at home in Poltergeist, as would the grinning ghouls that terrorize Elizabeth in the graveyard, and the googly-eyed baked goods that come to life and go all Lilliputian on Watson in his dream are as terrifying as they are cute. Perhaps the most famous special effect in the movie is the stained glass knight who comes to life and attacks a priest. All of the movie's special effects were done by ILM, but that particular bit of magic was the work of Pixar -- which started out as a division of Lucasfilm -- and stands as the first all computer generated character in movie history.
Holmes is a reimagining of the detective's origin story, but it is also respectful of Arthur Conan Doyle's work. Those who have read all the original stories will enjoy the numerous nods to Holmes series staples like his deerstalker cap, pipe, and violin. There's even a surprising take on the beginnings of Sherlock Holmes's archenemy (making it one of the earliest movies I'm aware of with a scene after the closing credits).
Young Sherlock Holmes was among the first movies to be rated PG-13, and it deserves it. It is creepy. The chills come mostly from the special effects and the human sacrifice subplot, but what sets Young Sherlock Holmes apart from Temple of Doom (whose violence helped inspire the intermediate rating) is that the characters in peril are kids. I'm glad they didn't pull any punches, though. It makes for a more satisfying experience. I can only imagine how different this movie would be if it were made today. Not only would it be over sanitized, Holmes and Watson would probably be played by the kids from Twilight. I take it back; that would be much scarier.
Young Sherlock Holmes is a joy from beginning to end. Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing for this DVD, which appears to just be the 2003 release with new cover art. There are no bonus features, which is doubly disappointing considering 2010 marks the film's 25th anniversary. Unless they're just testing the waters for a deluxe release later this year, it looks like Holmes fans have nothing to look forward to. Even though it's an old release, the 1.85:1 transfer is surprisingly good. The picture is too soft in a few scenes, but overall it does a fine job of holding detail and color. The film grain gives it a warm, pleasing look and the print is almost completely clear of dust and debris. The 5.1 soundtrack is dynamic and more than handles the action scenes. It's just too bad we can't see what seven years of technological advancements could have done to make this movie look and sound even better.
The DVD is a disappointment, and it gets a little too scary for kids, but Young Sherlock Holmes is a wonderful movie that deserves to find a new audience. Whether you dig Conan Doyle's originals or just like a ripping good adventure story, give it a try. And for all that's elementary, don't wait 25 years to see it like I did.
The game may be afoot, but the verdict is Not Guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13