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Emil and the Detectives is apparently a German novel that has had multiple film adaptations over the years. One of those adaptations (the 1964 one, to be precise) was actually made by Disney themselves! Is the Disney film any good or is it better left forgotten? Read on to find out!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The film opens with an animated credits sequence
and then takes us to the German town of Neustadt where a young boy, Emil, played by Bryan Russell, is being sent on a bus by his mother to visit his grandmother in Berlin. Unbeknownst to him, a mole-like “skrink” (a slang word for “thief” used in the movie) is watching him. The skrink, Grundeis, played by Heinz Schubert, notices that Emil’s mother has given Emil 400 Marks to deliver to his grandmother.
(By the way, this entire sequence is being narrated by a narrator with a Dragnet/film noir-type voice and features probably one of my favorite film scores I’ve heard in a long time. It has a peppy sort of German bent to it.)
Grundeis then boards the bus with the intention of picking Emil’s pocket sometime along the journey. As the bus rolls along, Grundeis sits himself down next to Emil and starts to nonchalantly dangle a pocketwatch in front of Emil’s eyes. The hypnotic motions put Emil into a slumber and Grundeis uses this opportunity to steal Emil’s money. He quickly alights from the bus, but Emil wakes up just in time to notice that his money is missing. Seeing that his seatmate has alighted, he too alights and runs after the skrink.
He follows Grundeis to a restaurant and peers in from the outside. Being new to Berlin, Emil’s approached by an older boy, Gustav, played by Roger Mobley. Gustav is a kid who wears multiple hats and tries to get Emil to enlist his employment agency or tour guide services.
Emil however isn’t in the mood to make new friends and tells a nearby traffic cop about his stolen money. The traffic cop says that since Emil doesn’t have any actual proof that Grundeis stole his money, there’s nothing he can do. The traffic cop suggests that Emil go to the nearby police station and report his stolen money there.
Gustav overhears this conversation and tells Emil about one more service he runs: a private detective agency. Apparently Gustav along with a few other associates are private detectives who have successfully handled cases such as finding a lady’s missing cat one day.
Gustav wants Emil to let him and his associates handle Emil’s case. Emil finally gives in and tells Gustav the whole story about his stolen money and how he doesn’t want to go see his grandmother without the 400 Marks.
As this is going on, Grundeis is still at the restaurant apparently to meet two more “skrinks”.
They are the typical, impatient, gangster-type, Muller, played by Peter Ehrlich, and the boss of the trio, the Baron, played by Walter Slezak. It seems that the Baron has hired Grundeis for some important job and leaves a note at the restaurant for Grundeis to meet him and Muller at some hotel later that evening.
As Grundeis leaves the restaurant, he tears up the note and throws the pieces of paper behind him as he walks. Emil and Gustav notice this and try to collect the pieces of paper, but lose Grundeis in the end.
Gustav then takes Emil to his “secret headquarters” to meet the other detectives. The “secret headquarters” happens to be the home of one of the detectives and the “detectives” are 4-5 other boys of the same age range. They range from working-class twins to a high-class erudite known as the Professor.
Gustav explains the case to the others and shows them the torn up note pieces that he collected. The note mentions the time of the hotel rendezvous, but the piece that mentions which hotel it is is missing.
Gustav has one of the boys draw a picture of Grundeis based on Emil’s description of him so that all the detectives know who they’re looking for. Then, Gustav and some of the other boys go exploring nearby hotels to see if they can spot Grundeis. Finally, Gustav sends one of the boys to Emil’s grandmother’s house with a handwritten note from Emil saying how he’s busy and will be there as soon as he can.
That note is intercepted by Emil’s older cousin, Pony, played by Cindy Cassell, who’s staying over at their grandmother’s house. She writes a column for her school’s newspaper and smells a story here. She secretly follows the boy who delivered the note to see where he’s heading.
Later that night, the detectives discover the hotel that Grundeis is at and see that he’s having a meeting with the Baron and Muller. After the meeting is over, Grundeis heads to an abandoned ruin nearby. The detectives follow him and tell a local cop what’s going on. But when the cop goes to the ruin, there is no trace of Grundeis, who seems to have just vanished. The cop is convinced that the boys played a trick on him and tell them to go home for the night.
After the cop leaves, Gustav sends the other boys home and decides to stay at the ruin with Emil overnight. Their plan is to keep their eyes out for Grundeis or the other two gangsters who many show up again. By this time, Pony has caught up with Emil and the detectives and knows the full story of what happened. Gustav sends her home as well to make up an excuse to her parents and grandmother about why Emil hasn’t show up yet. But, Gustav tells her and the other detectives to come back in the morning to continue the investigation.
The next morning, the Baron and Muller arrive at the ruin and Gustav and Emil hide from them. They recognize the gangsters from the hotel meeting and when they too disappear in the ruin, Gustav and Emil split up to look for them. Emil ends up finding an entrance to some underground tunnels wherein the skrinks are hiding. He overhears them talking and discovers that they’re planning to rob the nearby bank from underground. Apparently, Grundeis is an expert tunneler so the Baron hired him to build tunnels from the ruin to the bank. Before Emil can go back up and tell Gustav however, the skrinks notice his presence and capture him.
Meanwhile above ground, the other boys and Pony have arrived and are looking for Emil with Gustav, but can’t seem to find him. The Professor convinces the others that they need to go report this to the police as it’s now become dangerous business. At first, the police don’t believe the kids’ story, but after the kids identify the three skrinks from some mug shots (and after some trickery on the part of Gustav), the police believe the kids’ story and head to the ruin.
By the time the police arrive at the ruin, the bank heist has already taken place and the Baron and Muller have run off with the money. They left Grundeis and Emil in the tunnels below and after an explosion, the tunnels flood with water. The police arrive in time though to save Grundeis and Emil from drowning and catch the Baron and Muller before they’ve given them the slip for good.
The film ends with the detectives praised as heroes and as the subject of multiple news stories. Emil’s mother has arrived in Berlin presumably after hearing about everything that has happened. Gustav offers his tour guide services to Emil and his mother to show them the sights of Berlin. And presumably, Emil gets his 400 Marks back!
And that was Emil and the Detectives! It’s a fun enough film: nothing to take too seriously, but nothing unenjoyable either. It’s not often you see family-friendly crime drama/gangster films, complete with angled shots. Most of the child actors gave good performances or at least tried their very best. Overall, it’s just an enjoyable watch!
So, the final score for this film is 30/35 = 85.71% (B) !
The next review will be posted on August 14, 2018.