Here’s a film you might know:
An ordinary young boy wearing round glasses arrives at his dark, foreboding new boarding school. Soon he befriends another boy and a girl, and the three of them fall into an epic adventure (full of occult mystery, murderous terror and even some flying!) where they finally confront the man whose name alone is the epitome of evil. The stage is set for a franchise of high-grossing films based on a celebrated series of books.
I am, of course, talking about Young Sherlock Holmes. (The bespectacled boy is the young Watson.)
Okay, so it didn’t spawn a Harry Potter-esque blockbuster franchise, and certainly got trounced by The Goonies and Back to the Future in the box-office and public-consciousness charts in 1985. But one look at Young Sherlock Holmes’s big-budget boarding school fantasia and Dickensian-Victorian-steampunk design and you have to feel that it influenced the Harry Potter films. After all, its screenwriter was Chris Columbus, who went on to direct the first two Potter flicks and co-produce the third.
I didn’t see this film when I was young. I only got around to watching it recently, inspired by repeated adoring mentions of it in Hadley Freeman’s excellent book on 1980s films, Life Moves Pretty Fast. (In the same book, she also made such a persuasive case for the merits of Dirty Dancing that I finally watched it — and enjoyed it too.)
Young Sherlock Holmes is indeed great entertainment. The action bowls along at a steady pace, thanks to a generous mix of thrills and surprises. One early scene in particular almost made me jump out of my chair. While never as willfully gory as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released the previous year, YSH was probably too dark in places for the younger end of its intended audience for that time — a bit like how Timothy Dalton was a Daniel Craig-style ‘darker’ James Bond before the public knew they wanted it.
Unlike the Potter films, where a supermarket sweep of famous actors chew scenery in supporting roles, YSH’s cast are unshowy and unknown. Its three young leads are just as solid as the Potter trio were, and Nicholas Rowe’s Sherlock has the right blend of snub-nosed haughtiness and burning curiosity. (In the witty and playful spirit of YSH, Rowe played Holmes again 30 years later — as a Basil Rathbone-style cinema parody in the film-within-a-film of Bill Condon’s drama Mr Holmes.)
Here’s the trailer. If you get to watch the film, make sure you stay put until the very end for an excellent post-credits scene; I almost stood up and applauded it.