I wasn't impressed by this even in 1985. It's quite good for the forty minutes, while the plot hasn't started yet and it's still Holmes Goes To Hogwarts, but eventually the cliches overwhelmed me.
The first thing that hits you is in the opening credits. This film was written by Chris Columbus and has Steven Spielberg as executive producer, although this isn't in itself a bad thing. There are many great kiddie films. Chris Columbus also wrote Gremlins and The Goonies. This one doesn't measure up to either of those, but it's beautifully produced and creates the most lovely-looking Victorian London. Nevertheless there's no way that anyone could see Waxflatter's flying machines, to give the most obvious example, and not realise that Spielberg's targeting the Disney audience again. Even the very title of the film is a giveaway. Young Sherlock Holmes! That's right, because there's no way anyone these days would ever be interested in some old fuddy-duddy. So you've got young Sherlock at school (genius!) and he's got a girlfriend (more, more!) and... gyaaaah, give me strength.
Surprisingly, this works very well almost until the end. Holmes's acquisition of a deerstalker and a pipe are both done with a light touch and become charming. His relationship with Elizabeth made me roll my eyes a couple of times, but the way they've worked it into the story makes a lot of sense. Only at the end does canon become a problem, with Watson blithering about "some day we'll meet again" and the audience going "don't be bloody stupid, you met for the first time in A Study in Scarlet
". I've happily watched films in which Sherlock is a homosexual, halfwit, fraud or drug-addled fantasist, but this is the first time any of them have managed to provoke from me a reaction of "that's wrong". Congratulations.
Nevertheless, broadly speaking Chris Columbus did a reasonable job of keeping the Sherlock fans happy. He hasn't softened the man himself, making him appropriately arrogant and rude. There's even an in-joke of Sherlock guessing that Watson's name is James rather than John, which is referring to Watson's wife inexplicably calling him that in one of Conan Doyle's stories. The real problem from a fan's point of view comes with the performances, since obviously the film demands the casting of young and relatively inexperienced actors in the lead roles. Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward and Roger Ashton-Griffiths have all gone on to have respectable acting careers, but you're certainly not going to be dancing away from your television saying you'll never again be able to watch Jeremy Brett. Cox's Watson is entirely unremarkable, but he comes across well because he's sharing the role with Michael Hordern's narration as a much older Watson looking back at his early years. Sophie Ward's Elizabeth is... okay. I liked her the best of the three leads and she works surprisingly well as a third member of the Holmes-Watson team, but she can't redeem those groanworthy moments I was telling you about.
Nicholas Rowe is playing the big role, though, and I'm afraid I didn't really like him. He embodies the role well, but his line delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Much of it you could attribute to deliberate acting choices and an attempt to portray Holmes's offhandedness, but he's clearly poor in scenes like his confrontation with Lestrade or his climactic "I'm going to get him".
What did they expect, though? An eighteen-year-old Peter Cushing?
There's a curiosity or two among the rest of the cast. Anthony Higgins (aka. Anthony Corlan in some old Hammer horrors) is one of the few actors to have played both Holmes and Moriarty, while I'd been looking forward to seeing the BBC's 1960s Watson (Nigel Stock) in the role of Waxflatter, mentor to and inspiration for this young Sherlock. Unfortunately he's unrecognisable under all that facial hair, while most of his scenes feel as if they've been nicked from the Children's Film Foundation.
The acting isn't my main beef, though. Rowe's not great, but he's watchable and I like the fact that the producers dared to cast unattractive heroes. Cox is fat, while Rowe has a face like a hatchet fish and reminded me of my cousin. No, the thing that really had my eyes popping out was the cliches and contrivances. Let's say you're the villain in a Spielberg kiddie film. Naturally you drop your blowpipe where Watson can find it, after choosing to kill your victims with the world's most unreliable murder method. You spend years building a Pyramid of Fear that can be brought down like a house of cards just by loosening a single beam, then never post any guards to look out for Holmes and Watson even when you know they're still alive and certain to come after you. On coming across Watson and Elizabeth during the all-action climax, naturally you kill neither of them but instead knock Watson to the ground and kidnap Elizabeth. Were you planning to tie her to a railway track? Best of all though is the way that you get Sherlock in your gunsights at the end, shoot exactly once (allowing Elizabeth to hurl herself in the way) and then lose all interest in killing anyone with bullets, even going so far about ten seconds later as to deliberately shoot to miss.
It's priceless, it really is. I still enjoyed it in an incredulous kind of way, but it's garbage. Note also the way that Sherlock manages to lie on a huge iron wheel in the middle of a blazing conflagration for a good minute or two, yet isn't sizzling like a kipper. He's expelled from school on obviously flimsy grounds, after which returning secretly to Waxflatter's rooms is apparently a crime that should have got him thrown in jail! Oh, and at one point he loses a fencing bout because he's let his emotions take over. How does that work, exactly? Happiness makes your sword hand go limp or something? It's not even as if anything was even at stake in the fight. This was in P.E. class, for crying out loud.
I always used to think of this as a knock-off of the previous year's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, even going to far in the UK as to go by the name of Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear. That it certainly is, but to my surprise today I was reminded more of Harry Potter. The film's at its best at school, in scenes that were filmed at Oxford University. The dining hall in particular is the spitting image of Hogwarts, while this film's Draco Malfoy (called Dudley) even ends up getting his hair turned white. Yes, I realise Harry Potter wasn't a twinkle in Jo Rowling's eye at this point. I can only say that that's the reaction I had to the film, especially with Chris Columbus being most famous these days for his involvement with the first three Harry Potter films.
Despite everything I've said, for its target audience this is a good movie. I can't say I've ever been enraptured with it, but it's got bags of energy and some beautiful production values. It even has Oscar-nominated special effects, the most memorable being a Stained Glass Knight who was the world's first all-CGI character and took four months to produce at Industrial Light and Magic. Murder victims see hallucinations, you see. Those are always fun. I managed to have a laugh watching this film, but I couldn't help regretting the youth of the leads (especially Rowe) and the horrible bits in the script. Even the villain's downfall is a little underdone and unsatisfying. Not as good as The Goonies.