Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 21, 2003)
For some reason, the winter of 1985 stands out to me as a period in which an inordinately high number of expected blockbusters generally fell flat at the box office. From White Nights to Enemy Mine to Clue, many flicks came and went without much of an impact.
Add Young Sherlock Holmes to that list as well. A big-budget action adventure complete with the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg as executive producer, it also involved future hitmakers Chris Columbus as writer and Barry Levinson as director. Despite all that, the movie failed to find an audience, and it went down as an expensive dud.
Clearly intended to launch a movie franchise that never materialized, Holmes opens with the weird death of an accountant named Bobster (Patrick Newell). Someone uses a blowpipe’s dart to inject him with a hallucinogen, and as Bobster fights off non-existent foes, he kills himself.
Then we jump to an introduction to pubescent John Watson (Alan Cox). His boarding school went out of business mid-term, so he transfers to a new one in London. He soon meets classmate Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and the two become friends. We quickly see that Holmes loves Elizabeth, the niece of eccentric retired schoolmaster Rupert T. Waxflatter (Nigel Stock). We also encounter Holmes’ classmate rival Dudley (Earl Rhodes).
The mystery man soon injects the poison into a clergyman (Donald Eccles) who dies when he thinks a painted knight attacks him. Holmes suspects foul play in the deaths, but the police ignore him. When Dudley sets up Holmes to implicate him as a cheater, the headmasters expel Sherlock. As he splits, Waxflatter becomes the next victim of the dartist. With the loss of his girl’s uncle and his mentor, Holmes formally takes on the case.
The remainder of the film follows his exploration of the case. Holmes presents one of those flicks that I want to like and feel like I should really enjoy, but it never quite takes flight. I can’t recall the last time I saw the movie, and that doesn’t seem like a good sign. Honestly, other than the film’s pioneering use of computer animation – the attacking knight presented an early example of those techniques – I maintained virtually no memory of the tale at all.
A lot of that stems from the fact that Holmes suffers from a fairly generic plot. The movie doesn’t employ a very interesting villain, and it takes an awfully long time to get where it wants to go. In many ways, Holmes feels more like a pilot for a new series than a full-fledged film. It becomes apparent that those involved intended it to launch a movie franchise, so it attempted to set the stage for later affairs more than explore the matters at hand. By the time the flick actually explains its plot, we don’t really care, and the convoluted tale doesn’t muster much to make us interested in it.
Not that Holmes lacks any charms. One sequence in which our protagonists get injected with hallucinogen stands out as a good one. It becomes fairly dark, as we get a sense of Holmes’ inner demons. The way it explores Watson’s fears provides a clever piece of comedy, as he imagines cookies and pies come to life to assault him to avenge all those the tubby boy ate throughout his years.
The young actors provide more than ample support for the story. British kids usually do better than Americans just because they present less precocious and cutesy personalities. Our leads here seem believable and concrete. Rowe presents a particularly good performance, as he makes Holmes three-dimensional and convincing. He brings a weight to the role one might not expect from such a young actor.
Despite these various positives, Young Sherlock Holmes remains a fairly ordinary flick. It manages to maintain our interest reasonably well throughout its 108 minutes, but it rarely elevates the material to become anything particularly special. It includes the occasional spark, which makes the general drabness more frustrating. Holmes provides a moderately intriguing tale but little more than that.
Footnote: make sure you stick with the film all the way through its end credits. An intriguing tag appears after they finish. (One that supports my contention that this was meant to be the first in a series, by the way.)