Friday, November 19, 2010

The Game's Afoot

There's a certain shock of recognition in watching Young Sherlock Holmes (1985, directed by Barry Levinson) at this remove. Twenty-five years later, one can't help but see the seeds of the Harry Potter films in this movie, from its English boarding school setting to its wilder flights of fantasy. It's not hard to imagine screenwriter Chris Columbus carrying this film in his heart and mind, nursing some level of hurt for its commercial failure, and re-creating it fifteen years later in the first of the Potter films. This film forms a direct link between The Goonies and the Potter films, all of which have the same basic elements. This particular film refines the formula down to the two male leads and the girl along for the ride: Holmes and Watson correspond, roughly, to Harry and Ron Weasly, while Elizabeth is the Hermione character. No wonder Warner Brothers picked Columbus to kick off the Potter franchise. He'd already made essentially the same film once already.

The visual echoes of Hogwarts are particularly strong in this shot.

The film itself is a triumph of production design and contains then state of the art special effects. It's one of the first films to make significant use of CGI. It's a fun movie to watch, though twenty-five years of similar creations (not just the Potter films) have taken a little bit of the bloom off the lily. Revisiting this first deployment of a fully realized CGI character is a bit like going back to the films of Georges Méliès. The effects were dazzling at the time, but Moore's Law is a bitch to special effects filmmakers. Time and tide wait for no one, I guess.

The cinema's first CGI character. A dubious accomplishment or a landmark?

The story itself is kind of a romp that winks at Doyle without really embracing him. It's more in love with the Spielbergian boy's adventure. It gets Holmes and Watson largely right, and it gets the occultism of both Doyle and the late Victorian period largely right, but it's a little bit too in love with its special effects creations, while neglecting the fun character quirks of Holmes. Mind you, I suppose you could argue that those quirks were still in the formative stages, but I miss the streak of asshole-ism in Holmes, and the cocaine habit. In a film that places a premium on drug-induced hallucinations, this seems like an oversight, but then, it's essentially a kid's film. Interestingly, one of Holmes's hallucinations seems to look back at the Freudian background found in The Seven Percent Solution, though a young audience would surely miss that. What this film really lacks is the presence of Moriarty, but even this is only a conditional absence (there's a credit cookie that addresses this, which I missed when this film was still in theaters).

Other elements are pure Spielberg: the ornithopter (which flies across the moon), the cultists that recall Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, the daddy issues. The most un-Holmesian element of the film is The Girlfriend the filmmakers have provided for Holmes, and it stands out like a sore thumb. One longs for a young version of Irene Adler, but, no. Instead, we get a damsel in distress. The movie includes Elizabeth as an element that scars Holmes for the rest of his life, but it's an element that doesn't really work.

This is not a film that really rewards deep analysis. It's all surface, no subtext. A ride, if you will. There's nothing wrong with this, per se--I like escapism as much as the next girl--but J. K. Rowling (and, by proxy, Alfonso Cuaron) really has set the bar impossibly high for this stuff. JUST being a recounting of "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened" is no longer enough even in kid's movies. Don't get me wrong: I like this movie, but the years have not been kind to it.

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