Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

This one might be a little controversial. The Christmas elements are pretty subtle, though they do bookend the movie. While it's possible to argue that the movie's plot might have tied into a pre-Christian fixation on the winter solstice, this was never stated outright or even implied beyond the seemingly coincidental timing, so it's admittedly a stretch.

Still, for a movie that barely touches on its timing, it seems to bend over backward to be set in December. The story is told, as is traditional, by Watson, who arrives at his new school about two weeks before Christmas. This is obviously odd timing from a narrative point of view, since it would have been easier to explain him arriving at the start of a semester. Throughout the film, London is always covered in a thin coat of snow, which even I know is ludicrous for the season. There's also a rather baffling detail involving a killer who wears bells which are extremely reminiscent of sleigh bells. At the end, the movie is careful to show a newspaper displaying a date of December 25. At this point, one character gives another a Christmas gift.

Other than that, there are a handful of decorations and at least one Christmas song in the background. But that was all I noticed in terms of holiday allusions. It's baffling that they went through so much trouble for so little payoff.

Of course, one reason may have been the release schedule: Young Sherlock Holmes was originally released in America on December 4th, so they may have wanted to use the setting as a draw.

Regardless, the movie seems more interested in setting up an alternative origin story for Holmes and his surrounding cast than anything else. When we meet Sherlock Holmes, he already has his skill for deduction, but he's far more emotional and romantic than versions we're more familiar with. He's in love with a new character named Elizabeth, and the affection is requited.

Yeah. So you know she's getting fridged in this thing, right? I mean, not literally, since it was set before the invention of the refrigerator. Back then, I assume people preserved things in winter by keeping them outside in the cold. So it makes sense when they kill off her character, they do so in the snow.

If that seems a little dark for a holiday movie marketed for and starring children, it is. But then so is a lot of the film. The killers are part of an Egyptian death cult which drugs their victims, causing them to hallucinate. We're shown what's going through their heads during these scenes, and it's pretty disturbing. I mean that in a good way, incidentally: those imaginative horror sequences were easily my favorite scenes in the movie. Most were accomplished using phenomenal stop-motion, but one key scene - the sequence the movie is mostly remembered for now - represents a major step forward in computer animation done by none other than John Lasseter.

The movie's first half is a relatively intriguing re-imagining of a young Holmes. The second half, however, is basically a rehash of The Temple of Doom. The narrative loses its credibility around this time, and the plot holes expand to the size of giant Egyptian pyramids hidden in London. The movie wants to be both a rousing adventure and a psychological thriller, but it doesn't really deliver in either category. The explanations for Holmes's state of mind feel underdeveloped and poorly thought out. At the same time, Watson is played as the comic relief for a good three-quarters of the movie before finally stepping into his own towards the end. It's a fair enough origin for most early film versions of the character, but a piss poor interpretation of Doyle's Doctor Watson.

The movie's primary antagonists are a pair of brother and sister out for vengeance. We spent most of the movie trying to determine whether the brother was a stand-in for Moriarty or if they were going to pull a last-minute twist and have him be professor Moriarty in person. In the end, they had it both ways: a post-credit sequence revealed that he changed his name after the events in the film.

It actually would have been far more interesting to retain the teacher/protege relationship established between him and Holmes and introduce a separate new villain for this story. I love the idea of Holmes studying under Moriarty in college, then learning about his criminal connections later in life: pity they went in a more obvious direction.

At least they acknowledged the fact they were being cavalier with their source material: the movie opened with a note that they weren't basing their story on any specific Doyle story. They were even more direct at the end, where they acknowledged that they directly contradicted Doyle's account of Holmes and Watson's meeting. I honestly can't think of another time I've seen a movie more or less apologize for deviating from its source material before.

The movie is neat and fans of effects history might want to check this out for the mix of advanced stop-motion and early (but surprisingly effective) CG work. In addition, the movie is fun at times, and fans of Holmes pastiches will certainly find it interesting. However, more intense Holmes fans should beware the movie deviates from Arthur Conan Doyle's work quite a bit. Some of the changes are interesting, but most are just obnoxious.

It's a cool movie, and it's certainly good for its time. I enjoyed the hallucination scenes, and some of the deduction sequences were fun. But the action felt extraneous, and the villains were wasted. In addition, there were definite echoes of racism and classism in the Egyptian death cult which had recruited from the poor and homeless of London.

Overall, it's more interesting a historic work than it is as a story. But, depending on your interests, that might be more than enough to justify a viewing. It was for me.

(Editor's Note: Erin reviewed this movie because as we began discussing it, I began ranting about "The Sign of the Four" and specific reasons why problematic aspects of the premise and/or the execution were or were not justified by the source material. I have OPINIONS about Holmes. - Lindsay)