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Young Sherlock Holmes

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) has a nostalgic cult of fans who remember it as one of the better movies to come out of Steven Spielberg's 1980s production factory — the same factory that brought us offbeat pop gems like The Goonies and Gremlins. All three of the above films were written by a pre-Harry Potter, pre-yuppie-treacle Chris Columbus, and Young Sherlock's concept is eerily Ur-Potter: In an alternate Victorian-pulp universe, Holmes and Watson meet as teenagers at a London boarding school — where they solve a mystery with supernatural overtones. It seems that someone's poisoning old men with darts that cause terrifying hallucinations, driving the victims to kill themselves. As they probe their first case, Holmes (Nicholas Rowe), Watson (Alan Cox), and the obligatory damsel sidekick (Sophie Ward, looking uncannily like a British Amy Irving) uncover a sinister cult avenging itself on a group of British businessmen. Fans who remember YSH from their teenage years will fondly recall the easy chemistry between Cox and the weirdly sexy Rowe; the surprisingly intense PG-13 hallucinations (one of which features the first computer-generated character in a live-action film, animated by the very fellows who went on to guide Pixar to box-office glory); Bruce Broughton's lush score; and an after-credits surprise that rewarded fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's original Holmes stories.

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This humble reviewer has certainly counted herself as a fan, but after eagerly spinning Paramount's Young Sherlock Holmes platter, it's distressing to admit that a few of the film's cracks have started to show in the intervening years. For one thing, Barry Levinson's work-for-hire direction now seems kind of bored and TV-movie-ish. Both YSH and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feature secret cults sacrificing humans to exotic Eastern gods, but where Spielberg's Thuggees are luridly evil and photographed with a red-hued, fetishistic attention to detail, Levinson's Egyptian cultists are shot like the set-bound, mildly embarrassed British actors they are. Also, the movie doesn't really feature much of the goofy charm of the original Holmes character; after a couple of early nods to the future detective's analytic skills, the picture quickly devolves into a fairly routine adventure flick — with barely-sketched damsels-in-distress, swordplay, and purple dialogue that would make Arthur Conan Doyle blush. And then there are the Spielbergian intrusions, including a primitive flying machine Holmes and Watson use during a last-minute rescue — a weak thrill-inducer that would put Holmes and Watson a few decades ahead of Orville and Wilbur — as well as grating voice-over narration that was obviously added late in the game to mask scenes of Holmes/Watson chatter. Also, did we really need not one, but two title cards telling us that this movie's story flies in the face of the established Holmes/Watson meeting, as written in "A Study in Scarlet"? After all, Doyle himself was notoriously dodgy with details, actually giving Watson different first names in different stories! All that said, Young Sherlock Holmes boasts ample swashbuckling charms for younger viewers — and it might even serve as a "gateway" DVD, leading kids to the source books. Which is one reason why it's sort of a shame the movie gets the redheaded-stepchild treatment from Paramount. The Young Sherlock DVD comes with no special features — not even a trailer, much less a featurette on Doyle's literary merits. But at least the anamorphically-enhanced picture looks clean, along with the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. One wonders if a deluxe edition is in the works for the future, or if co-producer Spielberg is simply burying the film to avoid the inevitable comparisons with Temple of Doom. English subtitles, keep-case.
—Alexandra DuPont

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