Teenagers Sherlock Holmes and John Watson meet and become good friends as students at Brompton Academy, a school in London. Watson is introduced to Elizabeth Hardy, who is Holmes' love interest. He is also introduced to Rupert T. Waxflatter, a retired Brompton professor and inventor. Holmes is close to Professor Rathe, his fencing instructor, who warns Holmes that he is too emotional and impulsive.
Meanwhile, a mysterious hooded figure uses a blowpipe to shoot Bentley Bobster and Reverend Duncan Nesbitt with hallucinogenic thorns, causing the men to experience nightmare-like hallucinations resulting in their deaths. Holmes suspects foul play about the murders, which were presumed as suicides, but is rebuffed by Scotland Yard policeman Lestrade when he suggests a connection between the deaths. Holmes is later expelled from Brompton after getting framed for cheating by his rival Dudley. As Holmes reluctantly prepares to leave, Waxflatter is shot with a hallucinogenic thorn and accidentally stabs himself while trying to fend off imaginary gremlins. As Waxflatter dies he whispers the word "Eh-Tar" to Holmes.
Holmes secretly meets with Watson and Elizabeth and begins his investigation with the murders. During their investigation, the trio uncover the existence of Rame Tep, an ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris worshippers. The cult's main weapons were blowpipes, which were used to shoot thorns dipped into a solution made of plant and root extracts which, when injected into the bloodstream, causes the victim to experience realistic, nightmare-like hallucinations. Holmes, Watson, and Elizabeth then track the cult to a London warehouse, where the Rame Tep are performing human sacrifices in a secret underground wooden pyramid. After they interrupt their sacrifice of a young woman, the Rame Tep chases the trio and shoots them with thorns, but the three manage to escape into a cemetery. They begin to experience hallucinations (Elizabeth is being chased by the undead, Watson's favorite pastries are coming to life and force feeding themselves to him, and Holmes dead father getting angry with him due to uncovering his adulterous life), but Holmes is able to keep them all level-headed and they survive.
The following evening, at Waxflatter's loft, Holmes and Watson discover a picture of the three victims and a fourth man, Chester Cragwitch, who is the remaining victim. However, they are discovered by Professor Rathe and Mrs. Dribb, the school nurse, who plan to expel Watson and Elizabeth in the morning. That night, while Elizabeth heads to Waxflatter's loft to salvage his work, Holmes and Watson head to see Mr. Cragwitch, who explains that in his youth he and the other men had discovered an underground pyramid of Rame Tep and the ancient tools of five Egyptian princesses while building a hotel in Egypt. Their find led to an angry uprising by the people of a nearby village which was violently put down by the British Army. The men returned safely to England. However, a local boy of Anglo-Egyptian descent named Eh-Tar and his sister vowed revenge against them after their parents were killed in the attack. They also vowed to replace the bodies of the five Egyptian princesses. Cragwitch is then shot by a poisoned thorn and tries to kill Holmes, but is knocked unconscious by Lestrade who reconsidered Holmes advice after he himself was accidentally poisoned by the thorn.
As they return to the school, a chance remark by Watson causes Holmes to realize that Eh-Tar is none other than Professor Rathe, but he and Watson arrive too late to stop him and Mrs. Dribb, who is revealed to be Eh-Tar's sister, from abducting Elizabeth. Using Waxflatter's latest invention, a flying machine, Holmes and Watson travel to the warehouse just in time to prevent Eh-Tar from sacrificing Elizabeth as the fifth and final "princess". They burn down the Rame Tep pyramid and Mrs. Dribb accidentally swallows one of her poisoned thorns in a fight with Holmes and is burned to death, but Eh-Tar escapes with Elizabeth. Watson successfully stops Eh-Tar by sabotaging his carriage. Eh-Tar then tries to shoot Holmes, but Elizabeth intervenes and is wounded instead. Enraged, Holmes duels Eh-Tar and manages to get the better of him when Eh-Tar falls through the frozen River Thames. Holmes returns to Elizabeth's side and holds her as she dies.
Afterwards, Holmes decides to transfer to another school to get his mind off Elizabeth. As he exchanges goodbyes with Watson, Holmes explained how he deduced the identity of Eh-Tar. Watson also points out that "Rathe" is "Eh-Tar" spelled backwards, a clue that Holmes failed to notice. Watson gives Holmes a pipe as a Christmas and farewell present. As Holmes leaves with his new detective outfit, Watson's older self (the Narrator) expresses that he was certain he would have more adventures at Holmes side.
In the post-credits scene, Eh-Tar is revealed to be alive; he checks himself into an Alpine inn with a new name, "Moriarty", foreshadowing his role as Holmes' future nemesis.
While the film is based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the story is an original one penned by Chris Columbus. Though he admitted that he was "very worried about offending some of the Holmes purists", Columbus used the original Doyle stories as his guide. Of the creation of the film, Columbus stated:
The thing that was most important to me was why Holmes became so cold and calculating, and why he was alone for the rest of his life," Mr. Columbus explains. "That's why he is so emotional in the film; as a youngster, he was ruled by emotion, he fell in love with the love of his life, and as a result of what happens in this film, he becomes the person he was later.
The movie explains where Holmes gains the attire popularly associated with him. His pipe is shown as being a Christmas present from Watson, the deerstalker hat originally belonged to Professor Waxflatter and is given to him by Elizabeth after the professor dies, and the cloak is taken from Rathe ("Call it a trophy; the skin of a leopard") after Holmes defeats him.
The film is notable for including the first fully computer-generated photorealistic animated character, a knight composed of elements from a stained glass window. This effect was the first CG character to be scanned and painted directly onto film using a laser. The effect was created by Lucasfilm's John Lasseter (now chief creative officer at Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios) before Pixar was sold the next year.
In the United Kingdom and Australia, the film was titled Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear; in Italy Pyramid of Fear (in Italian: Piramide di Paura). As well in the UK, there was an earlier 1982, made for television, film called Young Sherlock: The Mystery of the Manor House featuring a young Sherlock Holmes, which ran for 8 episodes.
The fencing scenes were shot at Penshurst Place in Kent.
The film music was composed and conducted by Bruce Broughton who has a long-standing history of scoring orchestral film soundtracks. The music for the film was nominated for Grammy and also received a Saturn Award. The film soundtrack, released by MCA, was released on audio tape and vinyl but not compact disc. A limited edition of the entire score was released as a promo CD in 2003; Intrada issued the entire score commercially in 2014.
MCA track listing:
- Main Title (1:58)
- Solving the Crime (4:53)
- Library Love/Waxflatter's First Flight (2:23)
- Pastries & Crypts (5:44)
- Waxing Elizabeth (3:35)
- Holmes and Elizabeth – Love Theme (1:54)
- Ehtar's Escape (4:02)
- The Final Duel (3:51)
- Final Farewell (1:53)
- The Riddle Solved/End Credits (6:25)
Intrada track listing, with tracks on the original release in bold:
- The First Victim (2:57)
- The Old Hat Trick (1:45)
- Main Title (2:01)
- Watson’s Arrival (1:03)
- The Bear Riddle (:46)
- Library Love/Waxflatter’s First Flight (2:54)
- Fencing With Rathe (1:07)
- The Glass Soldier (3:22)
- Solving The Crime (4:54)
- Second Attempt (1:11)
- Cold Revenge (4:08)
- Waxflatter’s Death (3:38)
- The Hat (1:21)
- Holmes And Elizabeth – Love Theme (1:58)
- Getting The Point (6:25)
- Rame Tep (3:06)
- Pastries And Crypts (6:44)
- Discovered By Rathe (5:05)
- To Cragwitch’s (1:32)
- The Explanation (1:48)
- Cragwitch Goes Again (1:23)
- It’s You! (6:17)
- Waxing Elizabeth (3:37)
- Temple Fire (3:24)
- Ehtar’s Escape (Revised Version) (4:04)
- Duel And Final Farewell (5:41)
- The Riddles Solved And End Credits (6:27)
- Ytrairom Spelled Backwards (:48)
- Main Title (Film Version) (1:42)
- Belly Dancer (1:02)
- Waxing Elizabeth (Chorus) (3:01)
- Waxing Elizabeth (Orchestra) (3:37)
- Ehtar's Escape (Original Version) (4:03)
- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (arr. Bruce Broughton) (01:06)
Illusionist David Copperfield used the music from the soundtrack for several segments of his The Magic of David Copperfield XIII: Mystery on the Orient Express television special, in which he levitated an entire train car from the famed Orient Express.
This is also one of only three Amblin Entertainment productions on which the logo is accompanied by the music composed for it by John Williams; the others are The Color Purple and The Money Pit.
The film was a box-office bomb, grossing around $19 million against an $18 million budget.
The film received mixed to positive reviews, with a 65% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert gave the film 3/4 stars and Christopher Null of Filmcritic.com called the film "great fun".
Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Leslie Bennetts called it "a lighthearted murder mystery that weds Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the kind of rollicking action-adventure that has made Steven Spielberg the most successful movie maker in the world".
Pauline Kael wrote, "This sounds like a funnier, zestier picture than it turns out to be.... As long as the movie stays within the conceits of the Holmesian legends, it's mildly, blandly amusing. But when one of the imperilled old men gives an elaborate account of the background of the villainy... your mind drifts and you lose the plot threads. And when the picture forsakes fog and coziness and the keenness of Holmes' intellect – when it starts turning him into a dashing action-adventure hero – the jig is up.... the movie lets you down with a thump when Holmes and his companions enter a wooden pyramid-temple hidden under the London streets.... There's a resounding hollowness at the center of this picture – Levinson's temple of doom".
More recently, R.L. Shaffer writing for major internet review site IGN felt the film "doesn't hold up all that well" and that ultimately "the film shall remain a cult classic – loved by some, but forgotten by most.", while DVD Verdict stated that the film was both "a reimagining of the detective's origin story, but it is also respectful of Arthur Conan Doyle's work" and "a joy from beginning to end."
1985 – Academy Award For Visual Effects (nominated)
A video game based on the movie was released in 1987 for the MSX called Young Sherlock: The Legacy of Doyle released exclusively in Japan by Pack-In-Video. Although the game is based on the film, the plot of the game had little to do with the film's story.