Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

young sherlock holmes

“The game is afoot.”

The Scoop: 1985 PG-13, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox and Sophie Ward

Tagline: Before a lifetime of adventure, they had the adventure of a lifetime.

Summary Capsule: Sherlock gets his very first case, and he’s not old enough to smoke or shoot up heroin!  What would Arthur Conan Doyle think?

Justin’s rating: Elementary… school, my dear Watson!

Justin’s review: You know what Young Sherlock Holmes basically is?  It’s Harry Potter, only with less magic (but not completely void of it) and far more deductive skills.  You have a trio of a leader, a sidekick and a girl (Sherlock, Watson and Elizabeth) who go to a castle-like boarding school in London, where all sorts of mysterious events unfold.  There’s an antagonistic student whose shade of hair is only one bleach job away from Draco Malfoy, nice professors, batty professors, and secrets that can only be solved by prepubescent teens.  There’s even a character in there named “Dudley.”

Sure, J.K. Rowling wasn’t really tapping into anything new with the boarding school locale – it’s more or less a standard setting for a lot of British fiction.  But it was interesting to me to watch Young Sherlock Holmes and try to shake the feeling of retroactive déjà vu.

YSH is almost more notorious for the creative power behind it – executive produced by Steven Spielberg, written by Chris Columbus, directed by Barry Levinson – than for the end result, which is a PG-13 kids movie that can’t quite make up its mind if it wants to be young and whimsical, or grownup and dark.  Although it throws a disclaimer at the start of the movie that their story isn’t one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales, the filmmakers certainly set out to tell the origin story of the most famous detective in the world and his pudgy sidekick.

Watson, as always, is the narrator in this tale – although seeing a young kid being narrated by a hoary old voice is odd – and he recalls how he first met Holmes when he moved from the country to the city.  The two of them become fast friends at school, where the usual shenanigans are all the rage.  They clash with a mean-spirited bully, Holmes makes eyes with the only girl on campus, and they are gradually drawn into solving a stumper that involves people hallucinating and killing themselves for no apparent reason.

The movie has a lot of fun trying to incorporate the elements of the Holmes mythos into “this is how it could have begun” vignettes, such as how Holmes got his deerstalker cap or why Watson decided to grow up to be a doctor.  Yet the soundtrack is a little heavy-handed in the way it tends to be in kids movies, telegraphing emotions and punchlines with an overdose of obo and strings.

Aside from the curiosity factor, Young Sherlock Holmes simply failed to engage with me.  Everyone does an adequate job, but the mystery didn’t suck me in, the characters have that “kids acting like adults” vibe, and the whole production just sauntered along at a leisurely pace as if it couldn’t be bothered to get to the good stuff without taking a few detours.

I guess it needed a bit of magic, after all.

“Well, let’s go destroy our lungs, shall we Watson?”


  • The “cycling across the moon” shot is a reference to E.T.
  • When young Sherlock Holmes and John Watson first meet, Holmes incorrectly guesses that Watson’s first initial stands for “James”. This is a reference to one of the contradictions in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories: in most of the stories, Watson’s first name is John, but in one story, his wife inexplicably calls him “James”. Watson’s middle initial is “H”. This stands for “Hamish”, which is the Scottish variation of “James”.
  • First feature film to have a completely CGI (computer graphics image) character: the knight coming out of the stained glass window. Industrial Light and Magic animated the scene.
  • Alan Cox, who played John Watson, went through a growth spurt during filming. In the later scenes of the film, he is seen shot more frequently in a slight distance or seated, and actors around him were standing on risers.

Groovy Quotes

Sherlock Holmes: The game is afoot.

John Watson: I can’t afford to jeopardise my medical career!
Sherlock Holmes: Weasel.
John Watson: I’m not a weasel. I am… practical.
Sherlock Holmes: Weasels *are* practical. And I imagined you courageous and stout of heart.
John Watson: I am courageous. And I’m stout of heart. It’s just that… oh, all right. I’ll do it.

John Watson: [after a hallucination involving food] Yes, Mister French Pastry. I have nothing whatsoever to say to you. I trust you have nothing to say to me.

Sherlock Holmes: Sherlock Holmes, jealous? My dear, that word does not enter my vocabulary.
Elizabeth Hardy: Neither does punctuality.

Sherlock Holmes: A great detective relies on perception, intelligence, and imagination.
Lestrade: [amused] Where’d you get that rubbish from?
Sherlock Holmes: It’s framed on the wall behind you.

If You Like This Movie, Try These:

  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Goonies

One comment

  1. To my mind, the best Sherlock Holmes movie is Billy Wilder’s 1970 masterpiece, ‘The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes’. It knocks all previous movies into the gutter. Plus, it is the only Sherlock Holmes movie where Holmes has a large stand of cannabis plants growing in his rooms in Baker Street! Seriously, though, It’s a lovely piece of work, with a tangible sense of place and time, and a fine air of melancholy, which like it or not, is a large part of Holmes’ personality.

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