Dr John Watson well recalls his first ever meeting with Mr Sherlock Holmes. As a youngster (Alan Cox) he had been transferred from his countryside boarding school to one set in the heart of London, and as he walked into the dorm to put his luggage next to his bed, he struck up a conversation with a boy calling himself Sherlock (Nicholas Rowe) who astounded Watson by telling him various details about himself without being prompted. This was Holmes' forte, to use his developing powers of deduction, but with some strange suicides occurring in the city that winter, he did not realise how vital those powers would be...
Young Sherlock Holmes was apparently very wary of the legions of fans of the great detective, for there are not one but two disclaimers, one at the start and the other at the end, telling us this film is just a bit of fun speculation as to what would have happened if Holmes and Watson had initially met years before their official first encounter. As it was, perhaps the anticipated disapproval was all too accurate, for even though this was a Steven Speilberg production, it did not perform well at the box office and was considered one of the master filmmaker's disappointments.
The main problem could have been that screenwriter Chris Columbus was at a loss to settle on a decent mystery for his title character to solve. It's not a good sign when we in the audience are always one step ahead of Sherlock when the opposite should always be true; I know his skills are meant to be on a learning curve here, but it's so obvious who the real villain is from his first appearance onscreen that you wonder if you might not have done a better job of tackling the case. Compounding this is the fact that after the halfway mark the mystery element begins to dry up.
And actually, the British title of this, Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear, points to what was really going on here, which was an attempt to turn Holmes into an Indiana Jones figure. Alas, the keen-minded brainbox does not quite cut it as an action hero, or not on Spielberg terms anyway, and the highly unlikely appearance of a huge wooden pyramid filled with Egyptian death cult members doesn't help either (wasn't there such a thing as planning permission in Victorian London?). Add to that a mad inventor who we're supposed to take as Holmes' mentor and has created a flying machine decades before the Wright Brothers, and you're better off forgetting the Arthur Conan Doyle connections.
Which can be difficult, as in the most superficial manner Columbus's script keeps needling you with references to the classic texts. Even in its clichés (elementary, anyone?) it can grate because these serve to remind adherents to the originals how far this has missed them. And yet, there is one aspect that makes you wish for a better setting, and that's the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Rowe and Cox are perfectly suited to their roles and work up a fine sense of camaraderie even when one is patronising the other; in the never made sequel, it would have been nice to see them play the grown up versions of the characters. Also appearing is Sophie Ward in a rather embarrassing try at explaining why Holmes never had a girlfriend, and it's business like this which finally sinks the enterprise. At least the ILM effects, including the cinema's first CGI character, are engaging, if again distinctly un-Doyle-like. Music by Bruce Broughton.