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Young Sherlock Holmes was Harry Potter before Harry Potter

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Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With the animated film Sherlock Gnomes hitting theaters Friday, we’re looking back on other interpretations of the famous sleuth from Baker Street.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

In an English boarding school housed within a gothic castle, where students dine and whisper among long candlelit tables set in great halls, three young students—two boys and a girl—are drawn together to solve a mystery involving the dark arts. One of the boys, the leader, is already infamous among his classmates, destined for great things; he draws the ire of an icy-blond rich kid who becomes his easily bested foe. The other is a reluctant adventurer, although he is unflappably loyal and a reliable source of comic relief. They’re mentored by a lovable bearded eccentric, though the adults who scoff at their investigations force them to become self-reliant, snooping around libraries and crowded shops for clues. They do battle with various ghostly apparitions, and eventually, it is revealed that one of their professors, in service to a dark master, was the villain all along. Along the way, this preternaturally gifted boy at story’s center meets his archnemesis, taking his first step along a path of lifelong adventure.


I’m hardly the first to note that Harry Potter bears more than a few resemblances to 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes, a theory that has been suggested over the years with varying levels of accusatory tone. Even the creator of Young Sherlock Holmes, screenwriter Chris Columbus, has admitted as much, calling it a “sort of a predecessor to this movie, in a sense” while discussing his direction of 2001’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone.

Columbus—who also directed the first Percy Jackson film, and has, in a sense, made a career out of sort-of Harry Potters—was probably being a bit coy there. The links between the two properties are superficial, perhaps, and they’re not always a one-to-one comparison; after all, in Holmes, it’s the hapless buddy character who wears the mop top, round glasses, and striped scarves. Meanwhile, their female pal/shared tentative crush is more of a convenient damsel in distress, rather than someone headstrong and independent like Hermione Granger. But Harry Potter and Young Sherlock Holmes inhabit a strikingly similar universe. Enough that—while you can’t exactly make the case that J.K. Rowling, a college student in 1985, might have seen it and, consciously or not, lifted elements of it for her own work—you could still unreservedly recommend Young Sherlock Holmes to Potterheads as an only slightly less fantastical spin on the same story.


It’s a little surprising, then, that Young Sherlock Holmes failed to launch the same kind of franchise, which it was so clearly engineered to do. Executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, it has the same kind of spirited, kids-on-an-adventure structure as other contemporary Amblin entertainments like The Goonies, Gremlins, and E.T. Although director Barry Levinson had only previously tackled the all-American adult tales Diner and The Natural, he does an excellent job here with both his young cast and the slightly fantastical Victoriana world, full of magical crags and crannies. The special effects are cutting edge—scenes involving roasted chickens and pastries coming to life have surely haunted the fuzzy memories of ’80s kids ever since—and include film’s first fully computer-generated character, a knight formed out of a stained-glass window created by future Pixar guru John Lasseter.

Young Sherlock Holmes’ ambitions are plain, right down to its similarly ahead-of-its-time use of a post-credits stinger to set up a future installment. On paper, by now we should be groaning about Columbus milking the cow with yet another Young Sherlock Holmes sequel (one that’s a “soft reboot”), and trading joking references to that shitty third one where we learn how Holmes became a coke addict. Instead, the film was a flop, outshone by an atypically crowded year for rollicking adventures. Today it’s usually only mentioned in Holmes-related listicles or whenever someone wants to accuse Rowling of plagiarism.

It deserves better than that. While Young Sherlock Holmes may lack the complexity of Harry Potter, it offers the same immersive, propulsive enjoyment, all while putting its own stamp on the Sherlock mythos. Borrowing liberally from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories while also taking audacious liberties with them, Columbus’ film introduces us to Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) as a cocky young blade striding through Brompton Academy, annoying schoolmasters and Scotland Yard alike with his arrogance and nosy inquiries into local crimes. We meet him at the same time as his new roommate, Watson (Alan Cox), whose roly-poly, slightly clumsy charms immediately endear him to Holmes. Together with Columbus’ original character, Elizabeth Hardy (Sophie Ward), the daughter of retired professor and inventor Rupert T. Waxflatter (Nigel Stock, who played Watson for the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes series), they all become swept up in a mystery involving an ancient Egyptian cult, whose members are now going around shooting hallucinogenic blow darts into people’s necks.


Along the way, the film gives us some of the usual, slightly ham-handed stuff of origin stories: See how Sherlock first acquired his pipe and deerstalker hat! Thrill as he says “elementary” for the first time! It gives Rowe plenty of room to explore both the elder Holmes’ swaggering shrewdness and the younger Holmes’ impetuousness; Holmes’ emotions get the best of him here, as Columbus sets out to explain how he became so calculating. (Rowe would play Sherlock again—or an actor playing Sherlock—in 2015’s Mr. Holmes.) The story marginalizes everyone else, reducing Elizabeth to something of a beautiful trophy and robbing Holmes’ assorted foils of any intrigue. The sole exception is Watson, who rises above his standard bumbling sidekick arc thanks to a funny, ingratiating performance from Cox.

Still, Young Sherlock Holmes retains the feel of a cracking good page-turner to be enjoyed in front of a roaring fire. In the end—at an elementary level—that’s how it and Harry Potter are most alike.


Availability: Young Sherlock Holmes is available to stream on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu. It’s also available to purchase on DVD, and may be found at your local video store or library.