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This weekend we can look forward to the great Sir Ian McKellen assume the role of one of the most beloved characters in British literature, that famous sleuth in the deerstalker hat, Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221-B Baker Street.

As you’ve probably noticed there has been a slew of Holmes related TV and movies lately, from Guy Ritchie’s popular Sherlock Holmes series with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, to the British updating Sherlock to the American updating Elementary.  Clearly the words “public domain” are music to a producers ears.  Sherlock Holmes is one of greatest characters ever created.  Exceedingly intelligent but also reserved, arrogant, rude, and completely obsessed with the mystery at hand.  Any producer can adapt one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, or commission a screenwriter to fabricate their own Holmes adventure.  The character has instant name recognition and they don’t have to pay a dime to the late authors estate.  This might save money in development cost but it does not always guarantee a profit at the box office.

In 1985 writer Chris Columbus was leading a pretty charmed existence.  The man who would later direct such hits as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films had just seen his screenplay for Gremlins turned into a blockbuster.  That film’s producer, the mighty Steven Spielberg, then asked Columbus to turn his story for The Goonies into a screenplay.  That film was also a hit and has become a classic for any kid who grew up in the decade of Devo.  That same year Spielberg, with the help of producers Mark Johnson and Henry Winkler (Yes, that  Henry Winkler.  Ehh) brought another Chris Columbus screenplay to the screen.  One that explored the origins of Sherlock Holmes, how he became friends  with the future Dr. John Watson, why he chose lifelong bachelorhood despite the occasional romance, and how he came to acquire that funny looking piece of headgear.

Like the Doyle stories, Young Sherlock Holmes is told from the point of view of Watson (Alan Cox, son of actor Brian Cox), who’s adult self narrates the story.  Young Watson, looking like a chubby Harry Potter (one can’t help but think that Chris Columbus got many ideas for the Potter franchise working on this film) arrives at a London boarding school in mid-term.  He is assigned a bed right next to the an adolescent Holmes (Nicholas Rowe).  Immediately, Holmes impresses Watson with his powers of deduction.  Except for thinking that his first name is James, Holmes is able to surmise Watson’s biography with just one glance at his attire and belongings.

The two boys bond rather quickly.  As the new kid in school, and a short, pudgy one at that, he needs a friend and protector.  Holmes himself is a bit of a misfit.  The ease in which he passes his exams, not to mention his fencing prowess, strikes more envy then admiration in some students, as does his curt manner.  This is clear when he humiliates a prigish classmate named Dudley (Earl Rhodes) by informing him that his new Swiss pocket watch was actually made in Italy.

We learn that Holmes had a mentor named Rupert Waxflatter (Nigel Stock), an eccentric inventor and former professor who still occupies a laboratory on campus.  We also learn that Sherlock did indeed have a major love in his young life, Waxflatter’s niece Elizabeth (Sophie Ward).

While Watson and Holmes are getting to know one another, a bizarre series of what appear to be suicides are taking place around London.  In truth, the people who seem to be instigating their own death have been drugged by a mysterious cloaked figure who uses a blow-dart gun laced with a hallucinogen to drug the victims.  One believes that his house is infested with snakes and on fire.  One sees a bunch of grotesque, bat-like sculptures in an antique shop come to life and attack him.  And one victim, a priest, sees a knight in a stainglass window shatter then re-assemble and attack him.

All of these special effects were created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic effects house under the supervision of Dennis Murren.  The effect with the stainglass knight was a genuine milestone in the art of cinema.  It was the first computer generated character to be integrated into a live action film.  The sequence was animated by John Lasseter.  Shortly after the release of Young Sherlock Holmes, Lucas sold his computer animation division to Steve Jobs.  Lasseter went on to head the new animation studio called Pixar.  I guess you know the rest of that story.

The hallucination scenes are quite marvelous and very much in the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle.  Unfortunately the film becomes unhinged slightly when Holmes uncovers a plot surrounding a group of Egyptian cult members.  This pretty much turns the film into Sherlock Holmes and the Temple of Doom in its last act, which all-too-closely resembles the Spielberg film from the previous year.  Also like that the second Indiana Jones outing, we’re treated to a healthy dose of overkill.

That said, Young Sherlock Holmes is a thoroughly entertaining film.  It’s expertly directed by Barry Levinson, the director of Diner, The Natural and who would soon go on to direct Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man and Avalon, the later a film that will show up on this blog fairly soon.  It’s also a visually beautiful film, photographed by Stephen Goldblatt and production design by Norman Reynolds (Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark).  The cast of young actors are also excellent.

Unfortunately the film failed at the box office.  While the juvenile leads have, according to Wikipedia, continued to act as adults, they never really got the opportunities to capitalize on their fine performances in this film.

And so, if you want to see a good origin story with a decidedly youthful and modern slant, then rent/buy or stream Young Sherlock Holmes and let the game be afoot.

Rating:  ***1/2

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