by Mel Valentin
Arthur Conan Doyle’s “consulting detective,” Sherlock Holmes, and his longtime friend and chronicler, Dr. John Watson, entered Western pop culture more than a century ago. Not a year goes by without either an adaptation of one of Doyle’s 56 short stories or four novels based on Holmes and his longtime friend and chronicler, Dr. John Watson. Twenty-five years ago, Steven Spielberg attempted to rebrand Holmes and Watson with younger audiences and kick-start a new franchise by executive producing "Young Sherlock Holmes." Written by Spielberg’s one-time protégé, Chris Columbus ("Rent," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Home Alone"]), and directed by Barry Levinson ("Wag the Dog," "Bugsy," "Rain Man," "Tin Men," "Diner"), "Young Sherlock Holmes" failed to attract audiences to movie theaters.The events in Young Sherlock Holmes occur (two decades before Holmes and Watson’s first canonical appearance in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet). When we first meet Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe), he’s already showing signs of the brilliant detective he’ll become in the near (fictional) future. He has a curious, quick, analytical mind and scores highly on his exams at Bromton Academy, an all-boys school in London. Holmes’ mentor, Professor Rupert T. Waxflatter (Nigel Stock), an eccentric, ex-academic and inventor, spends his time working on a heavier-than-air flying machine (several decades ahead of the Wright Brothers). Waxflatter’s niece, Elizabeth Hardy (Sophie Ward), lives and works at the academy.
"Light, lightweight entertainment, courtesy of 80s-era Spielberg."
John Watson (Alan Cox), Holmes’ future (fictional) chronicler, arrives at Bromton mid-year, a transfer from another school. Watson and Holmes quickly become friends, with Watson the eager disciple. Always on the lookout for a mystery to engage his mind, Holmes notices Waxflatter’s interests in the bizarre deaths of two men, Bentley Bobster (Patrick Newell) and The Reverend Duncan Nesbitt (Donald Eccles). A third man, Chester Cragwitch (Freddie Jones), lingers outside Waxflatter’s laboratory, but flees when Holmes, Watson, and Elizabeth approach. Rather than turn to his other mentor, Professor Rathe (Anthony Higgins), Holmes approaches Inspector Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), a stodgy, unimaginative Scotland Yard detective (and future Holmes’ foil) for help. Lestrade dismisses Holmes’ ideas as fanciful and ill founded.
Not surprisingly, hardcore fans rejected Young Sherlock Holmes as a bastardization and misinterpretation of Doyle's singular creation. They also objected to the non-canon romance between Holmes and Elizabeth and the explanation for Holmes never marrying as an adult. All true, but all minor, especially since there’s no attempt to make Young Sherlock Holmes fit the canonical stories except in broad strokes. A more significant objection, however, can be found in the mystery, or rather the lack of mystery in Young Sherlock Holmes. Columbus’ screenplay and Levinson’s direction give away the identity of the villain early on (his “ultimate” identity isn’t surprising either).
Given the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a year earlier and Spielberg's involvement as a producer, Young Sherlock Holmes must have struck moviegoers circa 1985 as Indiana Jones-lite. They weren’t wrong. As the emphasis on action/adventure and the sequel-ready ending suggests, Spielberg envisioned Young Sherlock Holmes as the first entry in a potentially lucrative franchise. He probably saw the comparisons to Indiana Jones as a positive, not a negative. Paramount agreed, re-titling Young Sherlock Holmes Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear for British audiences.
Objections aside, Young Sherlock Holmes is far from perfect. Watson’s voiceover narration is often redundant and distracting, adding nothing narratively, presumably included to remind moviegoers of the first-person narrative device Doyle used in his short stories and novellas and/or to explain plot points Levinson and Columbus felt would be otherwise unclear to audiences. The secondary characters are caricatures, e.g., Waxflatter, the wild-haired daft genius inventor, rambling, forgetful, octogenarian instructors, and a buffoonish Lestrade. With only a handful of suspects available, the villain’s identity will come as no surprise, even to the least attentive audience member, as is the second, post-credits revelation of a new identity to match the literary Holmes’ arch-nemesis.Two-and-a-half decades later, "Young Sherlock Holmes" remains notable for the 3D stained-glass knight that attacks a parish priest. Supervised by a young John Lasseter, then employed by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in the animation division and later sold to Steve Jobs under the Pixar brand name (for the computer hardware developed by the division), the stained-glass knight was the first fully rendered CG character to appear in a mainstream, Hollywood film. Animating the stained-glass knight took four months to complete. It would take another decade of advances in computer hardware and software, however, before a feature-length, computer animated film could be made ("Toy Story," of course).
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originally posted: 10/13/10 15:12:22