Monday, August 29, 2011

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Young Sherlock Holmes
Dir. Barry Levinson

2.5 out of 5

Alarmingly stern titles bookend the otherwise lightweight
Young Sherlock Holmes, reminding us that the film is taking considerable liberties with the printed canon of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - an "affectionate speculation" that wonders what it would have been like if Holmes and John Watson had met as schoolboys. They're weird bits of legalese and sycophancy that contradict the more fantastical aspects of the movie and made me wonder if I was seeing a bowdlerized version of what was once a much wilder and imaginative idea.

That said,
Young Sherlock Holmes is already plenty weird, yet rarely feels more substantive than a typical kiddie mystery goosed by staccato action sequences that blend puppetry, animatronics, and nascent computer-generated effects. (Holmes is famous as the first film to use a fully CGI effect, a stained-glass knight that comes to life and menaces a priest for approximately 10 seconds. It was created by Pixar, back when the company was a branch of George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.) Narrated by an aged Watson - portrayed in his youth by Alan Cox, looking for all the world like a boy dressed as an accountant for Halloween - the movie tracks the development of the teenage Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and his uncanny gift for deduction. After some very Encyclopedia Brown-style hijinks, Rowe catches his first adult case when he suspects that an Egyptian death cult is responsible for the murders of several wizened London educators. The blatant similarities to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released just a year prior, would seem highly transgressive were Holmes not produced and "presented" by Steven Spielberg himself.

The young cast acquits itself well, even if it doesn't have the best material. Cox is amusing as history's frumpiest 13-year-old, standing a foot and a half shorter than Rowe and acting as his intellectual punching bag. Rowe does even better work as Cox's fellow outcast, a playfully precocious savant who's nonetheless an arrogant prick - an intriguing prologue for a character as famously frigid as the great detective. The film even dares to give Rowe a love interest, Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), who lends him pathos in ways that are, if not the most original, strangely affecting. Unfortunately, we don't learn much more about them once the investigation gets under way and Levinson - an odd choice to direct - fixates on the sequences designed to show off all the expensive effects and stunt work.

I don't want to discount the work of the technical professionals. It is very good for the genre and the era, and carries some of the dated charm of the horrors from the
Nightmare on Elm Street series. (The 'animatronics supervisor' is Stephen Norrington, who would go on to direct similarly speculative Victorian mayhem in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) But technical wizardry is not an effective substitute for a compelling narrative. The script, penned by Chris Columbus, has a certain moppets-solving-mysteries vibe later glimpsed in his Harry Potter adaptations but can't sustain the appropriate level of wonder, much less excitement. Though a stellar deliverer of endearingly quirky, low-octane thrills (and perhaps pre-pubescent nightmares), Young Sherlock Holmes is a disappointingly grounded work of speculative fiction. In fretting over its potential to upset hardcore fans or tarnish a legacy, the film largely fails to create either of its own.

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