Young Sherlock Holmes (review)

Before the Game Was Afoot

First thing the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes made me think? (Okay, second thing, after “Sexiest Holmes evah!”) “I have got to see Young Sherlock Holmes again.” I remember it as one of seminal geek movies of my adolescence, cuz it was, you know, basically fan fiction. A big-name filmmaker — Steven Spielberg! — was making a movie that was fundamentally riffing on the kind of speculation that was running through my dorky head all the time. What if Holmes and Watson met as kids at a British boarding school? And this was years before Harry Potter!
The fine folks at Paramount clearly figured a lot of people were thinking the same thing, because they’ve repackaged an existing release of Young Sherlock Holmes with new cover art in the hopes of fooling you into thinking this has something to do with Guy Ritchie’s film.

what was this:

is now this:

which is meant to remind you of this:

It’s the same old barebones, no-extras, unremastered DVD of the film that’s been available for years, but you know what? That’s fine. Because the movie — which I have not seen on DVD ever, so my last viewing probably dates from the early 1990s at the latest — holds up really well, and is just as fun today as it was when I was a tender geek of 16, back in 1985.

This is the origin story for the world’s first consulting detective that Conan Doyle was never considerate enough to write for us, unaware as he was that geeks a century later would demand to know the minutiae of every moment in the life of superheroes cerebral, not only the brawny be-caped types. So it was down to Chris Columbus (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, I Love You, Beth Cooper) to create it. (He wrote the script; Barry Levinson [Man of the Year, Envy] directed, with Spielberg producing and lending his name to be splashed all over the flick before either of the other guys were really major names.) Everything you want to know is here, even the questions that Conan Doyle would never have thought would be asked. Like, How did Holmes acquire the deerstalker? (The author would have been appalled by this; no proper elegant city gentleman would wear a rural hunting cap in town.) Like, Was Watson always such a clumsy dimbulb? (Actually, Conan Doyle described him as a man of action, a decorated soldier and unlikely to have been overweight or stupid.)

But never mind! It’s fun! Nicholas Rowe (Beau Brummell: This Charming Man, Princes in the Tower) as Holmes presents a dashing figure with a cutting analytical mind even as a teen: “This Holmes boy is too precocious, too egotistical for his own good,” one of the teachers snorts, as if this cannot contribute to shaping a fictional cerebral superhero. (In this early era of self-referential geek cinemature, stuff like this was catnip to budding snarksters like me, even if it would play as too on-the-nose today.) Alan Cox (Ladies in Lavender) as Watson is simply adorable in a, well, sweet and unassuming Harry Potter kind of way. Holmes has a girlfriend, the charming and adventurous Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), which cannot stand, we know, because Holmes has to become the distant, cold man we’ll know later. Holmes has a mentor in Professor Rathe (Anthony Higgins), who prizes Holmes as his best fencing partner and says things like “Never replace discipline with emotion” — and if you don’t guess what’s going on with Rathe, you’re no sort of geek at all.

Primitive as the FX of the day were, it’s all still pretty successfully gruesome: almost all the characters are, at various points, drugged into horrific hallucinations of supernatural attacks by the likes of a reanimated chicken dinner and a stained glass knight who leaps out of a window in one of the very first CGI sequences on film. (It’s often gruesome funny, too, as when Watson hallucinates an attack by French pastries.) It’s not even too cheesy, either, as the mystery Holmes, Watson, and Elizabeth are investigating turns very Indiana Jones, what with the Egyptian death cult — which would have been appropriate to the Victorian era, when ancient arcana was all the rage — running its very own temple of doom.

Oh, and perhaps the thing that I remember best from Young Sherlock Holmes? That postcredits easter-egg scene. I remember sitting in a movie theater while the credits rolled, talking excitedly with my little brother about how totally awesome the movie was, and how we were the last ones there, purely by happenstance and not out of expectation, when that final scene popped up. What small parts of our brains were not blown by that point exploded.

I can’t recall a movie ever doing anything like that prior to Young Sherlock Holmes, and to this day, whenever I’m compelled to sit all the way through the credits because it seems like there’s some bit of business left undone, I think of this movie, and how it subtly changed by expectations for movies forever.

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Tue, Mar 23, 2010 9:08pm

Love this movie. And I remember seeing it in theaters when I was seven. My family and I were straggling to get out and by the time we were about to hit the exit– there was that twist ending at the end of the credits. It’s been a quarter of a century later, and I still wait at the end of most movies for their respective “stingers”–with varying results.

Thanks for reviewing this classic, MaryAnn. Your reviews of older films has been missed!

Tue, Mar 23, 2010 9:09pm

Very nice nostalgic review, MaryAnn. Thank you.

Josh C.
Josh C.
Tue, Mar 23, 2010 9:41pm

Left to right: Hermione, Harry, Neville.

You all know I wasn’t the only one to notice the blatant similarities.

Ide Cyan
Ide Cyan
Tue, Mar 23, 2010 11:11pm

I have it on DVD with the old cover. And I’m glad you mentioned the end-credits easter egg. It’s a classic!

Anthony Higgins also played Sherlock Holmes in a TV movie (failed series pilot?) I saw ages ago about a cryogenically preserved Holmes who wakes up in late 20th-Century San Francisco.

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 12:06am

Thanks for reviewing this classic, MaryAnn. Your reviews of older films has been missed!

You’re welcome! I’m gonna try to get to more reviews of old films on a regular basis.

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 2:16am

After seeing the new Sherlock Holmes, before leaving the theater, I said to my mom and husband “is it just me or did Young Sherlock Holmes have a much better mystery to solve?” It felt like the new one kind of too reminiscent of YSH.

(I also realized in regards to the new movie that I am a bigger purist than I had thought). I disagree on the best looking Holmes- hands down my favorite was Robert Stephens or Rathbone.

I also remember Anthony Higgins in 1994 Baker Street. I hoped it’d be turned into the series as I liked Dr. Winslow- a smart awesome woman (the Dr. Watson counterpart). I have it taped off of TV from the original run. I ought to break it again and see if it was as good as I remembered.

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 4:42am

Speaking of old films to review – I was sad there was no review of Willow (man, I love that film). Ahem. Not that you take requests, or anything.

I’ve never seen The Young Sherlock Holmes (I was an 8 year old proto-geek in 1985) but this looks like fun, that Amazon link is calling me.

JB Early
Wed, Mar 24, 2010 6:02am

This was a fine Sherlock Holmes movie, I thought Nicholas Rowe nailed the rôle. I’d even hoped there would be more. Especially with that post-credits scene.

Good work on your part for this piece.

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 7:56am

There was something very Malfoy-esque about Holmes’s school rival

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 8:46am

I was a bit underwhelmed by the plot – too much Indiana Jones than classic Holmes, the same problem in the Downey film – but thought they did a great job playing with the tropes.

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 11:31am


I never knew that! I’ve seen it many times, but it was a long time ago, in a mental state far, far away where I didn’t even think to check for a post-credits sequence. Oh, darn, now I’ll just have to watch the whole movie over again. :D

By the way, in terms of Holmsesian origins, I’d recommend Mark Frost’s novel “The List of Seven” to anyone with an interest in Holmes, the supernatural, and/or ever liked anything about Twin Peaks (Frost co-created it w/ David Lynch). It’s something of a (fictional) Holmes origin story itself. The twist is that Arthur Conan Doyle is himself the main character, with the story centered on an encounter with an agent of the Queen whom he later uses as the inspiration for Holmes. Wiki it. ;)

Come to think of it, someone ought to make a movie out of THAT, too!

Wed, Mar 24, 2010 4:58pm

yeah what was the scene after the credits? stinkers I hate it when they do that!!!!

I remember this with great fondness – it was on film 4 not so long ago. I caught a bit of it then – they were probably cashing in on the Guy Ritchie one too