Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

24 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Young Sherlock Holmes” imagines what it would be like if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s notorious detective characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson met as young men. And even if the screenplay calls for young Holmes and young Watson to embark on an adventure of Spielberg proportions not necessarily worthy of the Doyle tales (indeed, Steven Spielberg was one of the film’s producers), it’s a pretty entertaining watch.

The introduction of young Holmes and young Watson is wonderful—a real treat. Young Watson is the new-boy-at-school in every sense—he’s near-sighted and slightly round. His first encounter with a fellow student is a young genius named Holmes. Just as Watson is about to introduce himself, Holmes stops him, saying “Let me.” After an awkward pause, Holmes, without stuttering, states proudly, “Your name is James Watson, you’re from the North of England, your father is a doctor, you’ve spent a considerable amount of leisure time writing, and you have a particular fondness for custard tarts. Am I correct?” He was right about everything except that Watson’s name is John. Watson asks how he did that, to which Holmes responds that it was clear, elementary deduction from a close look at his belongings.

“The name tag on your mattress reads J. Watson. I selected the most common name that belongs with ‘J’—James. John would have been my second choice.”

The boarding school that Holmes and Watson attend is in the great tradition of English locations used in fiction, in which a great sense of unconventionality is always visible. In particular, living in the school, is a retired old professor, Dr. Waxflatter (Nigel Stock). He has many bizarre, clever, wonderful inventions in his workplace. His latest is a contraption much like a one-man pedaling airplane—however, his many tests have proven unsuccessful.

And let’s not forget that nosy dark-cloaked figure that stalks the grounds and uses a blowpipe to shoot special thorns into his victims. The thorns are dipped in a solution that causes those exposed to it to experience frightening hallucinations. The victims seem to be killing themselves to escape their drug-induced nightmares—these include a gargoyle that comes alive and attacks; a coat hanger that turns into snakes; and the most impressive (although definitely underused) special effect, a stained-glass-window knight that jumps off the window and walks toward the victim. (For you trivia buffs out there—That knight is the first entirely computer-generated character to be released in a feature film.)

When Waxflatter falls victim to the hallucinations, Holmes and Watson are left important clues. Holmes is determined to get to the bottom of this foul play, as he, Watson, and Holmes’ girlfriend Elizabeth race to solve the mystery.

What they find, I’ll admit, is not worthy of Holmes and Watson. It’s a secret Egyptian religious cult that partakes in human sacrifice of young female virgins, inside an underground pyramid. Just call this “Young Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom” and you get the idea. (Fittingly enough, in some countries, this film is entitled “Pyramid of Fear.”)

“Young Sherlock Holmes” is essentially Doyle mixed with Spielberg, and it does more justice to Spielberg than it does to Doyle. But there are many Doyle elements to enjoy—such as the references to the Holmes/Watson elements we know of (Holmes’ pipe, his cloak, his violin-playing, etc.). The characters of young Holmes and young Watson are portrayed and written convincingly in the great spirit of Doyle, and played wonderfully by Nicholas Rowe as the charismatic young genius and Alan Cox as the loyal Watson. They’re effective so that Holmes purists won’t be offended.

There’s one element that fans will notice doesn’t fit into this Holmes story and that’s the character of Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), a beautiful young woman who lives at the school and serves as Holmes’ love interest. She’s beautiful, nice, and attentive; but you can tell where the character is going so that no woman will ever touch Holmes’ heart again, hence his bachelor lifestyle. However, to her credit, if anyone were to be the only woman for Holmes, it would have to be Elizabeth.

Even if the special effects don’t belong in a Holmes story, they’re still fun, and so is this movie. “Young Sherlock Holmes” gives us interesting heroes to root for, an engaging mystery for us to follow, and more-than-capable execution from director Barry Levinson, writer Chris Columbus, and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt.

One Response to “Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)”


  1. My Next Top 150 Favorite Movies | Smith's Verdict - June 28, 2018

    […] Sigh. Once again, I’m pushing it here. As with “The Borrowers,” there’s nothing that’s particularly high-class about “Young Sherlock Holmes” (except for, perhaps, the very first CGI character, seen on screen for a few seconds as a walking stained glass window). But it’s still (broken record here) “a ton of fun.” It’s a what-if scenario in which Sherlock Holmes and John Watson meet as schoolboys…in a Spielberg-produced movie that features Temple of Doom ripoffs. Ok, it’s not perfect. But it is fun, especially when it references Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lit elements in this particular setting. (And don’t think I haven’t thought of Harry Potter while watching this film with fantasy elements, set at a boarding school, with a bespectacled young hero at the center of an amazing adventure.) Nicholas Rowe is great as young Sherlock Holmes; it’s a shame his career didn’t really go anywhere, because he has such a charismatic presence in this movie. Review: […]

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