**/**** Image A Sound A
starring Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward, Anthony Higgins
screenplay by Chris Columbus
directed by Barry Levinson
by Walter Chaw Fresh from The Natural and with a couple of films to go until Rain Man, Barry Levinson snuck in Young Sherlock Holmes, another adventure of a gawky idiot savant hero, which I initially saw as a lad of twelve one afternoon with my best friend before either of us had developed much discretion. Touted as the first picture to feature a completely computer-generated character and featuring a post-end credits epilogue that we found out about however it was that dorks found out about stuff like that before the Internet, the picture came to me the winter after the summer I'd spent reading the collected works of Arthur Conan Doyle, and the entire experience left me thoroughly enchanted. But in revisiting this slightly sadistic boy's tale, what emerges is less a sense of thrill and awe than a recognition of the oppressive influence that executive producer Steven Spielberg had on this and all of the projects under his pre-DreamWorks aegis, Amblin Entertainment.
Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) and rotund John Watson (Alan Cox) meet, the film suggests, at an exclusive boarding school, where Holmes romances lovely Elizabeth (Sophie Ward) while shepherded by doting professor Rathe (Anthony Higgins). Holmes has an Aryan rival, of course, and despite a few half-hearted intimations at ratiocination, the whole thing serves mainly as a colourless rehash of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (indeed, the original title of the film was Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear) that makes up for its lack of any particular racism with a sort of amazing amount of girl abuse. (In a way, the picture also predicts screenwriter Chris Columbus's eventual adaptations of the first two Harry Potter novels.) The particulars of the case, something to do with a string of mysterious suicides precipitated by an Egyptian cult existing in Holmes-era London, aren't nearly as interesting as the lengths to which Spielberg and company go to make Homes "exciting" for a mid-Eighties youth audience that mostly learned what they knew about popular entertainment from twin godheads Spielberg and George Lucas.
Skewing Doyle's creation dangerously towards the virile (and the literary Holmes was known to bend fireplace pokers) and away from the intellectual is the mortal sin that Young Sherlock Holmes commits above all others. Its special effects hold up a lot better than one would suspect, but they remain so out-of-place in the story that the question of their insertion is one of plausibility rather than appearance. No more so, however, than the decision to end things with a pagan ritual and a swordfight that finds the love interest treated most foully before she throws herself in front of an assassin's bullet. The reason Holmes was a bachelor who could never really figure out women, Levinson suggests, isn't that he lost his true love, but that his true love was essentially tortured to death in a big-budget extravaganza that provided the bastard sire for Jar Jar Binks, whose grandpa was a stained-glass knight.
Paramount presents Young Sherlock Holmes on a bare-bones DVD whose paucity of supplementary material is more justified this time out for a selection from the studio's '80s genre cache than was the case with the thorny Dragonslayer. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks quite good--better is the honouring of DP Stephen Goldblatt's spacious compositions and dusky colour palette. Goldblatt is a slick cinematographer (his best work is still on Joe vs. the Volcano), but married to the right transfer and format, his "frankness" intoxicates. For what is in essence a catalogue title, Paramount graciously provides DD 5.1 audio (adapted, one presumes, from the six-track mix that adorned 70mm prints of the film) that gives all six speakers a surprisingly muscular, multi-directional workout. It's a mixed blessing, of course, as good Holmes should probably be more of a dialogue-driven thing than an exploding-glass, riding-chandeliers sort of thing. Originally published: July 5, 2004.