Finally, here I am writing about Young Sherlock Holmes (it’s also known with the alternative title Pyramid of Fear), the 1985 film written by Chris Columbus and directed by Barry Levinson. Why finally? Because this is undoubtedly one of the movies I love the most, and not only because the protagonist is a young version of Sherlock Holmes, the character created by Arthur Conan Doyle that I adore in practically all his incarnations.
I’ve already mentioned this film in other reviews, for example because I consider it the best in my personal trio of best adventure films with teenagers followed by Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and Richard Donner’s The Goonies (which was also written by Columbus who in that period also wrote Gremlins, directed in 1984 by Joe Dante).
And so here we are with Young Sherlock Holmes. Why do I like it so much? First of all because it uses the characters of Doyle without distorting them. On the contrary, there’s love towards the characters of Holmes and Watson in a story that fits almost without problems in the canon of the stories written by Doyle himself (the only thing that doesn’t work, assuming this story to be in-canon, is the fact that Holmes should recognize Watson in their meeting in A Study in Scarlet, but it’s just a detail). Columbus respects the role of Watson, develops the antagonist Moriarty, and he even gives an explanation for our beloved detective’s aversion towards romanticism.
Then, the story is perfectly balanced between mystery, action and fantasy and it’s impossible not to be drawn into it from beginning to end. All the characters are well written and well interpreted, every scene serves either to deepen their personalities or to develop the very interesting plot. And let me mention the story: Watson (Alan Cox, son of actor Brian Cox) arrives in London and goes to the school where the young Sherlock Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) is already a true celebrity thanks to his exceptional intelligence. The two immediately develop a great friendship and Watson soon discovers that Holmes is in love with Elizabeth Hardy (Sophie Ward), who lives with his uncle Rupert T. Waxflatter (Nigel Stock) on campus. Things get interesting when one by one some of Waxflatter’s old acquaintances die in mysterious circumstances, and in particular suffering from strange hallucinations…
And I’ll stop here, no spoilers! If you haven’t seen the movie, the advice is of course to do so as soon as possible. It wasn’t a huge box office success, it barely recovered its $18 million budget, so I suppose that not everyone has been lucky enough to see it.
What else to say? The making of this film is spectacular, with magnificent sets, glorious special effects that stood the test of time (with a mix of practical effects and some of the first CGI effects ever, made by nothing less than Pixar, like the animated knight of the church window), and an amazing epic soundtrack composed by Bruce Broughton. Every detail is perfect: choosing Oxford as the shooting location really paid off, with its tall and dark Gothic buildings! Also, the teenage Sherlock is very different from the one we know thanks to Doyle’s writings. He’s passionate and impulsive and the story of the film gives us all the elements necessary to justify the evolution towards the cold Baker Street detective who solves crimes in order not to get bored.
Perhaps Young Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have the depth of Stand By Me nor is it an adventure as imaginative as that of The Goonies, but for me it’s always the best film of the lot, the one I rewatch more fondly. Curiously, here too there’s a narrator, Watson, whose off-screen voice, as in the case of Stand By Me, works perfectly within the film. And of course the influence of Spielberg is extremely clear. He acted as producer with his Amblin Entertainment, as well as in The Goonies, and there are scenes that clearly recall his first two Indiana Jones’ movies (especially the second one, with its temple and rites) from a few years earlier!
The anecdotes with which I could bore you don’t end here, of course. For example, have you noticed the common element of inventions in the three films written by Chris Columbus at the beginning of the Eighties, namely Gremlins, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes? In the first, the protagonist’s father sells improbable gadgets that he invents; in the second, Data has a lot of gadgets that come in handy when searching for One-Eyed Willy’s treasure; and in the third, Elizabeth’s uncle is not only a former professor, but also an inventor!
And the pipe! And the magnifying glass! And the hat! And the reference to Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft! This is all done on purpose to drive crazy a Sherlock Holmes’ fan! Well… a successful operation, as far as I’m concerned! Ciao!
PS: despite being a family movie (and produced by Spielberg), there’s violence, there’s blood, and various people die, exactly like in the real world. In the 1980s, children’s movies were smarter than today’s ones, or at least the kids were considered to be smarter than today’s ones…
PPS: I’m fairly certain that Chris Columbus remembered this movie when he was asked to direct the first two Harry Potter movies which share so many details with Young Sherlock Holmes (young protagonists, an English school…)!