Child prodigy Hiroki Sadawa (voiced by Ai Orikasa), a graduate of MIT at just ten years old, invents a DNA tracker software for the company founded by his guardian: software giant Thomas Schindler (Masane Tsukayama). Then, shortly after installing a new artificial intelligence system called Noah's Ark, Hiroki inexplicably takes a suicidal leap off the Schindler building. Two years later at Beika City Hall, Schindler Inc. unveil a new immersive virtual reality game called Cocoon to the spoiled children of an elite guest list of politicians, tycoons and celebrities. Also among the guests is genius detective and teen-trapped-in-a-kid's-body Conan Edogawa (Minami Takayama) along with his friends the Junior Detectives. Naturally Conan is on the scene when police find Schindler's chief engineer has been murdered. The victim leaves behind a cryptic message. From this Conan deduces the killing is connected to Cocoon. So along with fifty rich kids, Conan and the Junior Detectives, including his long-suffering nanny/alter-ego's girlfriend Rachel Moore (Wakana Yamazaki), climb into individual hi-tech pods to enter the virtual game world.
Within moments of them doing so Noah's Ark (Ai Orikasa) goes rogue, announcing to the horrified parents it has taken their children hostage. The unhinged A.I. confronts the kids with their choice of five different game scenarios. Should none of their number make it through to the end, it will fry their brains with an electromagnetic pulse right in front of their helpless parents. Conan opts for the fifth scenario: a Victorian murder mystery styled after the stories penned by his famous namesake Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Thrilled at the prospect of meeting their idol Sherlock Holmes, the Junior Detectives, alongside a pack of trust-fund brats led by obnoxious rich jerk Hideki Moroboshi (Megumi Ogata), instead wind up lost and scared witless on the fog-bound streets of London whilst embroiled in the nightmarish Whitechapel Murders committed by none other than Jack the Ripper (Sho Hayami).
Stories dealing with virtual reality were already old hat post-The Matrix in the early Noughties, even with regard to family films as demonstrated by the underwhelming Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (2003). Japanese animation would later serve up perhaps the definitive treatment of virtual RPGs in the divisive Sword Art Online (2012) but here the sixth feature-length outing for the hugely popular Detective Conan franchise (known as Cased Closed in the USA) put an undeniably ingenious spin on what was fast-becoming a well-worn idea. Upholding the high quality of the series adapted from creator Gosho Aoyama manga, The Phantom of Baker Street is a heartening example of a children's film that neither panders to nor patronizes its audience. It deals with challenging themes with a sense of fun and humour. Helpfully for newcomers the opening titles re-stage Conan's origin and reintroduce all the reoccurring supporting players. These include newcomers Ai Haibara (Megumi Hayashibara), an eighteen-year old scientist now chemically-rejuvenated as a child just like Conan - and our hero's parents: his flighty actress mother (Sumi Shimamoto) and mystery novelist father (Hideyuki Tanaka) who is a super-sleuth in his own right.
With an opening scene suspiciously similar to that of Mamoru Oshii's superb Patlabor (1989), The Phantom of Baker Street deftly interweaves a brisk techno-thriller with Boy's Own adventure along with some surprising social commentary. The film not only openly chastens the Japanese school system for the way it crushes individualism but boldly satirizes its feudal social traditions in remarkably blunt fashion. Noah's Ark states its intention to 'cleanse Japan' of a generation of privileged brats destined to inherit their parents' political power or business empires and, it is implied, continue their corrupt practices. Haibara sardonically describes the kids as "a condensed representation of Japan's evil hereditary system" and even Conan ponders whether the future they represent is a bleak one. However, rather than an overly simplistic condemnation of the rich, the plot sees Moroboshi and his brat pack shocked out of their complacency and, through Conan's example, learning their rash behaviour has consequences for others. Eventually they risk their lives to save others. Unlike say Scooby-Doo the mysteries in Detective Conan have real stakes and consequences. People die, including kids. Where else but in anime would you see children face-off with Jack the Ripper? Conan's Junior Detective Club hold their own surprisingly well in several skirmishes including a riotous bar fight where love interest Rachel (Ran in the original Japanese) gets to kick serious ass. Nonetheless the plot is more cerebral than action-driven, upholding the series fascination with puzzles and intricate mysteries.
Set in what for anime is a fairly sober rendition of Victorian London, Cocoon's virtual world blends historical fact with Doyle's fictional world giving avid Holmes-fan Conan a chance to rub shoulders with Mrs Hudson (Kei Hayami), Professor Moriarty (Kiyoshi Kobayashi) and Irene Adler whom Noah's Ark movingly models after the hero's own mother. Along the adventure young viewers get a brisk history lesson with a surprising astute analysis of late Nineteenth century London, describing the Ripper as the dark shadow cast by Victorian values. The creative team can't resist throwing in a climax closer to Agatha Christie than Doyle, as Conan assembles the Ripper suspects aboard a speeding train, along with a cross-dressing twist. Screenwriter Hisashi Nozawa concocts a spurious motive for the Ripper ultimately no more far-fetched than any of the recent live-action movies. No, for once he is not royal physician Sir William Gull. Meanwhile the virtual mystery is connected to the 'real-life' murder with an ingenuity typical of Gosho Aoyama and masterfully tied into the satire of Japanese cultural prejudice. Phantom of Baker Street also upholds the series ability to take viewers off guard with stirring emotional moments. Take Conan's father proving unable to publicly acknowledge the crime-solving kid is his son. Or the heartrending act of self-sacrifice performed by one key character referencing Sherlock Holmes' fate at Reichenbach Falls.