Young Sherlock Holmes
Before a lifetime of adventure, they lived the adventure of a lifetime
Pictures ---------- Release Date: December 6th 1985
Director: Barry Levinson ---------- Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox
Budget: $18M ---------- 2015 Equivalent: $40.1M
U.S Box Office: $19.7M ----------- 2015 Equivalent: $43.9M
Meeting for the first time at college, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson soon find themselves investigating a series of mysterious deaths. Discovering a link between the victims, the would-be detective uncovers an even greater danger, and will need to rely on all his powers of observation and deduction if he and Watson are to survive the Pyramid of Fear.
By the time Young Sherlock Holmes came to him, Chris Columbus already had one major success under his belt and another on the horizon. Gremlins had been a smash hit in the summer of 1984, and he'd soon repeat that with The Goonies. Both movies had been executively produced by Steven Spielberg through his company, Amblin. He tasked
He was particularity interested in the great detective's cold and emotionless state when dealing with his clients and their cases, and envisioned a singular incident that would set him on that path. At the same time, Columbus was cautious not to offend fans of the original material, along with the Conan Doyle estate, whose support for the project they wanted to keep [The finished film would carry a closing epilogue stating that the story was affectionate speculation of what might have happened, and had been made with ‘respectful admiration and in tribute to the author and his endearing works’]. As with many Amblin productions, Spielberg made contributions to the script, specifically the nightmarish hallucination sequences. With work progressing nicely, a search for a director began. Ruling himself out of the role due to his commitment to The Color Purple, Spielberg's pick to helm the mystery thriller was an unusual one.
Like many directors of the time, Barry Levinson got his first break in TV, writing scripts for the likes of Marty Feldman, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett, before graduating to movies. Teaming up with Mel Brooks, he worked on the scripts for both Silent Movie and High Anxiety, and was Oscar nominated (along with his wife) for the Al Pacino movie, And Justice for All. In 1982 he made his feature debut with Diner, a critically acclaimed comedy drama about a group of friends who reunite for the wedding of one of the group. The picture made $14M off a $5M budget and helped launch the careers of Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon. Levinson was once again nominated for an Academy award for the screenplay. His next movie, the Robert Redford drama, The Natural, would be his first job as director for hire, the script having been written by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry. While not as well received as his previous work, The Natural made $48M in
Yet little in his previous work suggested he could make a mystery thriller with action elements - let alone one that would also involve a number of special effects sequences. Spielberg saw something in the 42 year old director, revealing in a New York Times article prior to the film's release that he felt he (Levinson) was a frustrated action adventure director. For his part, Levinson jumped at the opportunity to direct Young Sherlock Holmes, feeling it would offer him a wealth of new experiences which he could take on to future projects. The two directors spent much time talking about the movie, agreeing that it should move at a break-neck pace, not giving the viewer a chance to look for plot holes. The key was in the casting; they needed to find actors with a ready chemistry - if Young Sherlock Holmes was a success, there was no reason why it couldn't become a franchise, especially given how much material there was to mine.
Of the two leads, it was John Watson who was cast first. Alan Cox, son of veteran actor Brian, had been performing since he was six years old. His first onscreen role was as Jason in the TV movie, A Divorce. He then appeared in the Eric Syke's curio, If You Go Down to the Woods Today, a film about a scoutmaster who takes his troupe into the woods even though he's aware that killings have recently taken place there. Cox continued to appear in numerous TV shows before taking on a role in the Laurence Olivier film, A Voyage around My Father. The picture, based on the early life of John Mortimer (creator of Rumpole of the Bailey) won much acclaim. Aged only 14, Alan Cox won the role of Watson, but finding Sherlock would prove to be much harder. By the time the casting crew came to
The young actor was in his final winter term, and already had a university place in
While the search for Holmes and Watson had been going on, Sophie Ward won the role of
In the role of Professor Rathe, a teacher who takes a shine to Holmes, was noted stage and screen actor Anthony Higgins. Favouring theatre, Higgins won acclaim for his work in Romeo and Juliet, and went on to tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, winning the Time Out Actor of the year award in 1979. Young Sherlock Holmes wouldn't be his first time working with Steven Spielberg, having had a small part as Major Gobler in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The remainder of the cast was rounded out by Freddie Jones, Susan Fleetwood and Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Lestrade. Michael Hordern would supply the voice of the older Watson, narrating the tale.
With an $18M budget supplied by Paramount Pictures, filming on Young Sherlock Holmes commenced in January 1985 to meet a December 1985 release window. The picture would shoot for around four months, across a number of British locations including
For the flying contraption set piece, the crew had no real option other than to build a life sized replica and suspend it from wires above
Spielberg loved the idea, and was impressed with Dave Carson's concept sketches. To shoot the sequence Muren and Co. opted to go with rod puppets as opposed to animation. He reasoned that using puppets they could shoot a number of different takes with ease, were as with animation, they only really had one shot to get it right. Levinson felt the scene was a little silly, and got worse the longer it went on where as Spielberg's view was the opposite, and he urged Muren to go even further. In the end, Levinson won out and the scene and its excesses were cut back. Had it gone ahead, it would have felt at odds with Holmes' hallucination, an emotionally charged incident involving his parents. There were issues with some of the matte painting work too, with Chris Evans vocalising his unhappiness during an interview with Cinefex. He stated that the job was made much harder due to being called in after plates had already been shot. Had he been on set sooner he could have easily solved many of the issues he subsequently had to overcome. Evans' would also create the first ever digital matte shot on Young Sherlock Holmes, which was used during the hugely ambitious stained-glass knight sequence.
If one scene stands out in the movie, it is that of the stained-glass knight. Another hallucination set piece, it would be the first time that a completely computer generated character was used in a movie [Some argue that technically Tron holds this title with the polyhedron character of Bit]. Dennis Muren wasn't sold on the idea of creating the knight digitally because he felt computer generated imagery hadn't advanced enough to be convincing. However, he was willing to give Lucasfilm's computer graphics division a chance at creating something potentially ground breaking. To be on the safe side, he also factored in time at the end of the post production period in case the sequence needed to be created using more conventional methods. Adding to the complexity of the job ahead was the fact that the character was essentially 2D, but needed to look 3D - and menacing. The team was in unknown territory; if they needed a tool to do a job, they had to create it themselves. Work progressed slowly, yet the team continued to make breakthroughs in both the scene and the software they were using. A new rendering tool meant they got to see a test run in around five minutes as opposed to two hours.
John Lassetter, a name that would become synonymous with computer generated imagery in the near future, spent many hours using a 3D space digitiser, scanning in co-ordinates of a clay model of the knight they'd created. Muren continued to support the venture, while pushing the staff hard to raise the level of believability in the character. The team even ended up using tape measures and blueprints on the actual set to ensure everything was where it should be, in terms of where the knight would be walking in 'their' version of the scene. Though the methods seem antiquated by today's standards, much of what they achieved sowed the seeds for almost everything that would follow in terms of computer generated imagery. It would take a full six months of work to finish the scene, which lasts less than 2 minutes in the film, with the knight himself appearing for only 30 or so seconds of that time. Yet it would go on to become one of the key promotional aspects of the film, often appearing as a supplementary clip to footage of Holmes and Watson. The work behind many of the film’s effects (both digital and practical) were also covered by an extensive article in Cinefex magazine.
Young Sherlock Holmes was due for release in December 1985. The main trailer used to announce and promote the film pushed the action angle for all it was worth, selling it as an Indiana Jones style romp rather than a murder mystery. Indeed, to reinforce the idea further, the picture received the full title of Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear in the U.K and
Winter isn't generally as busy as the summer in terms of film releases, but there were still a number of major showings that Sherlock would need to face off against. Rocky IV had opened the week before to huge business, and was giving no sign of being ready to give up the top spot. Perhaps a bigger concern was the release of Spies like Us on the same December 6-8th weekend. One of its stars,
In the end, none of it really mattered. Young Sherlock Holmes opened in fifth place, making a poor $2.5M. As expected both Rocky IV and Spies like Us won the weekend, with $11.1M and $8.6M respectively. Holmes was further beaten by Santa Claus the Movie and White Nights, which had expanded out of limited release. Weekend two wasn't much better either, with the film suffering a 37% drop on its already low opening frame. A huge expansion in its third weekend, readying for a Christmas boost, did nothing to help and it slipped quietly out of the top ten. While it managed to re-enter the chart on the following weekend (scoring the best total of its release), it was short lived. A month on from its release it had barely clawed back more than half of its budget. By mid-January, it was gone altogether, having made a disappointing $16.9M. When all was said and done, Young Sherlock Holmes had earnt $19.7M.
Nicholas Rowe would spend almost a year promoting the film around the world, but its lackluster performance in the U.S was repeated elsewhere. It would go on to gain traction on the home video market, and has become a regular feature on network TV in the intervening years, but was never the money spinning franchise starter Spielberg and Columbus had hoped for. In a baffling turn, two years after the film’s debut, a video game adaptation was released exclusively for the MSX. Young Sherlock: The Legacy of Doyle was an official license (the back cover even featured photos of Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox) yet followed a completely different story.
At least the efforts of Muren and Co. were rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects in 1986, though the film ultimately lost out to Cocoon, whose effects were also produced by ILM. The work pioneered by the computer graphics division on Young Sherlock would serve countless others over the years, influencing such pictures as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and
In what seems like an inexplicable move to the modern audience, Lucasfilm decided to offload the computer graphics division the following year, selling it to Steve Jobs. John Lasseter and others went with it, and formed Pixar, which would become the most successful computer animation company in the world. It was purchased by Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion dollars. As part of the deal Lasseter became chief creative officer for Disney's animation division, while still retaining control at Pixar. Completing the circle so to speak, Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, with ownership of Industrial Light and Magic coming as part of that deal.
Sadly, for the three main leads, Young Sherlock Holmes would be the biggest movie of their careers. After struggling to get a foothold in
After Sherlock, Alan Cox was absent from screens until an appearance in the
While the people in front of the camera may not have faired quite so well, Barry Levinson went from strength to strength. He followed up Young Sherlock Holmes with Tin Men, Good Morning,
Sherlock Holmes has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the last few years. The Guy Ritchie films, starring Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law, kicked things off in 2009. Six months later, under the guidance of Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the BBC introduced Sherlock, a modern day take on the characters, which featured elements of Conan Doyle’s original stories. The show proved incredibly popular and made superstars out of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. It also helped spawn a
Star power aside, it’s hard to see why Young Sherlock Holmes didn’t perform better at the box office. The film is well remembered by those who have seen it, and even Holmes purists consider it a solid attempt at the character’s origins. The chemistry of the leads is there for all to see, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see them embark on further adventures together, especially given the ground work laid down by the first film. It remains an enjoyable thriller with some truly terrifying sequences, and while the fabled stain-glass knight doesn’t hold up quite so well, it’s still a fantastic creation, without which Terminator 2 may not have had its T-1000, nor Jurassic Park such convincing dinosaurs. Given the enduring popularity of the characters, Young Sherlock Holmes is more than worthy of a second chance.
Along with usual Wikipedia and IMDB reference material, I owe a big thanks to a great overview of a magazine article that was a fantastic resource for the effects sections of the essay - http://graham-edward...herlock-holmes/