Friday, December 4, 2020

This Day in Film History (‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ Paves Way for New Special Effects Wizardry—and New Cinema Wizard)

Dec. 4, 1985—By the mid-1980s, Hollywood saw Steven Spielberg as having an uncanny instinct for what would excite the public. But as an executive producer rather than his more accustomed perch as director, his golden touch failed him with Young Sherlock Holmes.

Oh, he didn’t have a budget-busting box-office bomb on his hands. But, with a $19.7 million domestic box-office take barely covering its $18 million production cost, this movie was a disappointment.

That did not mean, however, that Spielberg hadn’t advanced cinema as a medium even now. This story—a speculation about the origins of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Victorian detective and his friend, Dr. John Watson—took innovation in the still relatively new field of computer-generated imagery (CGI) to a new level: an entire character (a knight jumping from a stained-glass window).

CGI, first encountered onscreen in Westworld (1973) and revived later in Tron (1982), now steered special-effects specialists and the audiences that delighted in them away from old-fashioned matte painting and model building and towards a brave new digital world. This new form of razzle-dazzle put John Lasseter on the path towards becoming a legend in the animation field, and earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (which, unfortunately, it lost to Cocoon).

(Oh, did I mention the major minds behind this Paramount movie? Lasseter’s boss was Spielberg’s old friend George Lucas, in his role as head of Hollywood’s answer to Edison’s Menlo Park, Industrial Light and Magic. Henry Winkler, having wound up his longtime gig as The Fonz on Happy Days, served as a producer here. Screenwriter Barry Levinson, having directed someone else’s script on The Natural the year before, was doing the same now for young Goonies and Gremlins scribe Chris Columbus. So much for the auteur theory of cinema!)

Critics greeted the movie in the same restrained manner as audiences, with ratings more or less ranging from two stars (Leonard Maltin) to three (Roger Ebert). Even as they noted the significance of the CGI tricks, they questioned why Levinson inserted it into what was essentially a Victorian mystery, or why, following Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg had yet again paid politically incorrect homage to the famous scene in Gunga Din (1939) showing a group of European characters watching in horror a human sacrifice occurring in a secret temple.

For years, this represented the final judgment on Young Sherlock Holmes: revolutionary in cinematic craft, but decidedly same-old, same-old as far as storytelling was concerned.

That verdict needs to be revised, or at least put in a different context. When I watched it 35 years ago, I found it a very pleasant way to spend two hours at the theater—and given the pretentious tripe that has come from film-school grads since then, that is nothing to sneer at.

Moreover, Columbus’ chief fear as he created the screenplay—i.e., outrage from Holmes purists over a departure from sacred scroll (Doyle envisioned them meeting instead as adults, in A Study in Scarlet)—seems in retrospect rather overblown, given the violent liberties taken by Robert Downey Jr. in converting the master of ratiocination into a bare-chested martial-arts devotee in two films.

Furthermore, I’m surprised that, with the passage of time, detractors continue to harp on how derivative Columbus was rather than acknowledge that he was paving the way for a far bigger trend in one of his later projects. So consider: What other Columbus film (this time with him as writer-director) also featured:

*another young hero with special powers (so great, you might even call him a wizard), along with another nerdy but loyal sidekick and another cute girl?

*another English boarding school with more than the usual trials of that setting?

*another battle against powerful forces of evil, in which the young hero is launched on his life’s mission?

Yes, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)—not to mention its 2002 sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—made studio execs forget in a hurry that Columbus was ever involved in an underperforming variation on Sherlock Holmes.

(For a fun summary of this film, see this post from the blog "Classic Film and TV Cafe" by "Rick29."

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