'The Great Detective Sherlock Holmes — The Greatest Jail-Breaker' ('Daaih jingtaam fukyi mosi — Touyuk daaih jeuibou'): Film Review

Courtesy of Golden Scene
The Holmes that kids and dog lovers have been waiting for.

'My Life as McDull' animator Toe Yuen and Matthew Chow adapt the popular Hong Kong kids book series about a hound dog version of Sherlock Holmes.

If an animated family film that colorfully tackles strangely grown-up subject matter such as prison reform, workers’ rights, lack of social generosity, class discrepancy and entire swaths of society being left behind by progress and technology sounds like fun for the whole family, then Hong Kong ’toon The Great Detective Sherlock Holmes – The Greatest Jail-Breaker is for you.

More delicately suggesting ideas parents can ponder than taking a cudgel to the older members of the audience, the latest from Hong Kong's small animated feature sector directed by Toe Yuen and Matthew Chow is based on the best-selling children’s book series by Lai Ho (which is also available in English).

Audiences looking for family-friendly fare that’s just a little different from the big ticket Pixar and Disney tentpoles will be tempted by the modest but entirely engaging The Great Detective, particularly at home in Hong Kong. It should also perform well in China, where the books are equally popular, and naturally at kids’ events overseas. And since it is animated, language conversions for foreign distributors will be relatively simple, and that could pique the interest of adventurous buyers willing to trade on the familiar Sherlock Holmes brand.

Unfolding In turn-of-the-last-century London, The Great Detective trades on that most dependable of children’s animations: a heroic literary figure — real or fictional — as a shamefully swanky, anthropomorphized animal (thinking Disney’s Robin Hood here), in this case a stylish gray hound. The adventure begins with master thief White Storm, also known simply as Mack (voiced in the original Cantonese by Stephen Au), breaking into the home of a wealthy industrialist.

As it happens, White Storm is something of a Robin Hood, and donates most of his loot to local Londoners living in poverty on the city’s fringes as it marches forward into the 20th century. The great detective of the title is, of course, famed fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes (Ken Wong), who determines quickly that the latest crime perpetrated by White Storm was, in fact, not White Storm. The Scotland Yard investigators Holmes irritates are Gordon Riller — a gorilla — and Carlson Fox. Dr. Watson is a cat.

But as in the folklore, White Storm is a hero to the downtrodden, and when Sherlock and Riller finally apprehend him, humiliatingly, in front of his orphaned daughter Katie, Sherlock becomes a social pariah. In a demonstration of forgiveness and redemption, the two rivals become friends during Mack’s four-year prison sentence. When thug inmate Scarface (a bear) busts out of Barnard Castle Prison and threatens Katie, Sherlock and Mack (who’s also escaped) team up with Riller, Fox and Watson to get them both back where they belong.

Yuen is best known for his sneakily pithy social commentary in the My Life as McDull animated series, and along with Chow their 2D-mimicking 3D art shares many of the traits of that film. The colors are vivid and that animation has simple mechanics that don’t strain the eye and allow the action to be seen clearly. Yuen and Chow keep the narrative momentum moving forward at all times, minimizing the story lag; there are plenty of throwaway character moments (Sherlock trying to get a table at his favorite sweet shop after he puts Mack away is brief, but effective), emotion and messaging, but never causing either story lag or bloat.

All that is broken up by a few solid set pieces — a bicycle chase, Sherlock’s moody walk through London’s Victorian ghetto, skiing to the train station — as well as a handful of great retro-styled interstitials that detail the crime scenes. At times, The Great Detective recalls Guy Ritchie’s Holmes (this Sherlock has a savant-like moment seeing all possible outcomes of the aforementioned bike chase) and at other times conventional anime (many a pulsating, teary eye makes an appearance), but just as often it recalls the gentle, low-fi charm of animations that have proven to be refreshing tonics in the age of the photorealistic The Lion King and the Toy Story series. It’s a reminder of the pleasure in art like The Red Turtle, Kubo and the Two Strings and Hayao Miyazaki’s entire library.

The Great Detective may not have those levels of artistic mastery (it doesn’t aim to and it’s true to the books), but it does prove animation doesn’t have to be solely about ultra-polished hyper-kineticism. That said, it does have a compelling stinger in the event the film performs well at the box office. There are, after all, three more books and no sign of Sherlock’s arch-nemesis Moriarty — at least not yet.

Production companies: Rightman Publishing, Simage Animation
Cast: Ken Wong, Stephen Au, Monte Cho, Jerry Ku
Directors: Toe Yuen, Matthew Chow
Screenwriter: Toe Yuen
Producers: Lai Ho, Winnie Tsang
Executive producers: Lai Ho, Lee Yee-man, Winnie Tsang, Debbie Cheung,
Production designer: Joe Kwun
Editor: Miles Cheng
Music: Wong Kin-wai
World sales:
Golden Scene

In Cantonese
84 minutes