Dec 5, 2011

Young Sherlock Holmes (dir. Barry Levinson - 1984)

I'm well aware that what I'm about to say is blasphemous, but I'll say it all the same: I don't consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales to be very good mysteries. They're great stories, to be sure, full of wonderfully crafted characters, but as pure mystery tales, they fall short. To paraphrase S. S. Van Dine, in a good mystery tale, a reader must have the same chance of solving the mystery that the detective does. Part of the appeal of Holmes stories is his dazzling intellect, his ability to look at a person and know things that readers at home would never be able to decipher. Solving mysteries along with Holmes requires more leaps of logic than it does careful analyzation of clues. In Young Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is youthful and inexperienced, which offered the chance to weave a mystery tale in which the viewer and the famous detective were, for once, on equal footing. But, as much as I love a good mystery, I'm glad they didn't take that opportunity. Young Sherlock Holmes has mysterious elements, but it's a pure adventure tale, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Young Sherlock Holmes was a movie that was tremendously special to me as a child. At the time, I loved Holmes enough that I would have enjoyed the movie no matter what, but it was almost as if the writer (Chris Columbus, the first screenwriter whose name I ever took note of) was going out of his way to appeal to me. For the part of me that loved horror, there were scenes that terrified in incredibly imaginative ways. For the part of me who delighted over Indiana Jones, there were scenes that felt as though they'd come straight out of Temple of Doom. For the part of me that was a hopeless romantic, there was a love story I could swoon over again and again. And, more importantly that anything else, the film gave me one of my very first looks into the magic of Pixar.

Pixar spent much of the 80's creating special effects for various Lucasfilm projects, but the work they did on Young Sherlock Holmes is their most notable. Not only did they create the first ever fully CG character, a knight made entirely out of stained glass, but they combined CGI with a live-action background for the very first time. This earned Pixar the first of many Academy Award nominations, even if they somehow managed to lose this one to Cocoon. I'm not always the biggest fan of CG in film, but their work here was absolutely groundbreaking, and still holds up today:

CG is so often used as a shortcut, but the folks at Pixar are true animators. They put so much thought into the way their creations move, into the way their pieces come together, that less than 30 seconds of screentime can still be mindbogglingly awesome. John Lasseter himself created the effect, which required the pieces of the knight to be painted on film via laser, and it remains one of my all-time favorite uses of CG in a live-action film.

Were it not for the work of Pixar, I would have been too afraid to revisit the world of Young Sherlock Holmes. It's a film that I loved so dearly, that influenced the sort of stories I wrote for so long, that I knew it was going to never live up to my memories of it. But thankfully, while it's much easier to see the failings of Young Sherlock Holmes when looking at it through the eyes of an adult, it's still a fantastic kid's movie, and just a pretty great movie in general.

Young Sherlock Holmes, by its very nature, is required to take liberties with the Holmes canon. In Doyle's stories, Holmes didn't develop an interest in mysteries until his time at university, and he and Watson didn't meet until they were both adults. But it feels right for these two characters to be boyhood friends, and it's hard to imagine a Holmes not enamored with mysteries, no matter what the canon says. It's always been easy to understand why Watson is so taken with Holmes- in spite of his many eccentricities, he's an astonishing person, and getting to be a part of his world is worth putting up with all that comes with it. But here, it's easy to understand Holmes' fondness for Watson as well. His peers are largely concerned with being fashionable or finding jobs that will make them money, and the unassuming, country boy Watson must have felt like a breath of fresh air. Watson is unafraid to be wrong, and couldn't put on airs or pretend to be someone else even if he tried. They compliment each other wonderfully, and their friendship is one of the film's highlights.

Unfortunately, the other characters don't succeed in the way these two do. Holmes and Watson are iconic characters, and the film builds on the basic knowledge that most viewers will have of them. However, original creations, such as Holmes' rival Dudley and his love interest, Elizabeth, don't get much in the way of development and suffer for it. The former feels very by the numbers, and the latter doesn't seem to do much except look very pretty. Just a little more work on Elizabeth would've gone a long way, and it's a shame the movie couldn't have been 10 or 15 minutes longer.

Maybe it's just that life's crushed the hopeless romantic out of me, but it's hard for me to see the relationship between Holmes and Elizabeth as the grand romance I once did. More than anything else, their relationship seems to have sprung out of their limited possibilities- for Holmes, she's the only female around, and for her, he's one of the only males who isn't a self-absorbed dolt. But even if I don't think their tale is a romance for the ages, I can certainly buy that the two are in love. I generally think of Holmes as being completely aromantic, but when he watches Elizabeth out the window and professes that when he grows up, he "never wants to be alone", there's a hardened part of me that softens just a tad.

It took me a while to get used to the movie's pacing. In the first half of the film, there's not much of a flow from scene to scene. It feels more like you're watching a series of vignettes than a single cohesive tale. It bothered me at first, but eventually I realized how well it worked with Watson's narrations. It really does feel like he's recounting a few early memories before diving into the meaty tale. Fittingly, the narration slows down once the pace of the film picks up, and it its ending scenes seem to fit in with the feel of its early ones. It's not something every viewer will enjoy- it took me a good while to appreciate it- but I do think it enhances the viewing experience.

But even if you never warm up to the unusual pacing, those early horror scenes are an absolutely delight. Columbus seems to get that the horrors that lurk in your imagination can be more terrifying than any evil villain or monstrous creature that might be hiding in the shadow. I'm not sure I buy the effectiveness of the hallucinogen as a murder weapon. While it often seemed to kill its victims in minutes, anyone wearing plot armor seemed to get around its effects fairly easily. But still, I'm hard pressed to think of a scene more whimsically frightening than the adorable pastries who force Watson- bound up by sausages- to eat them. Nearly all these effects aged beautifully, and they manage to be scary without feeling out of place in a family friendly film.

At times, the movie is incredibly corny. It goes to great lengths to show how various things we know about Holmes came to be, and there's actually a scene in which kid after kid exclaims "Holmes is going to solve the crime!". But it's also extremely creepy, and manages to be fun from start to finish, even with an ending that's a bit of a downer. I wouldn't describe the acting in the film as good, exactly, but it's well cast. Nicholas Rowe plays Holmes as so cerebral and wise beyond his years that the moments in which he genuinely feels like his age are striking. Alan Cox gets some of the movie's best lines in as Watson, and manages to keep his character from diving into annoying territory. Sophie Ward doesn't do much besides look pretty, but it's what the script called for, and she does a good job of it. The film's villain (who went on to play Holmes in another movie) is wonderfully charismatic, and makes his reveal a pretty powerful moment. And I adore Roger Ashton-Griffiths's performance as a pre-inspector Lestrade. Occasionally, I cringed at the delivery of a line, but for a mostly young cast, the quality of the performances wasn't at all bad.

Young Sherlock Holmes has a satisfying ending as is, but the post-credits reveal takes it to a whole new level. These days, an extra scene after the credits is pretty common, but back then, it was incredibly rare, and I can't think of one that pre-dates it. The last few moments are so good that I'm also hard pressed to think of anything that's surpassed it since. Even when I watch it and know exactly what's coming, it gives me goosebumps.

These days, I could see myself being cynical enough to dismiss a movie like Young Sherlock Holmes before ever even watching it, and I'm glad that it came out long enough ago that I got to watch it with a child-like wonder instead. It's not quite as amazing as it seemed to a little girl back in the 80's, but it's still a very entertaining film with a lot of historical importance. Rest assured, you can make it through this one with nostalgia goggles intact.

**** out of 5.

1 comment:

Lyedecker said...

nice job. well written.