Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Emil and the Detectives

A Mill and the Defectives

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Emil and the Detectives" (Disney, 1964). In the small town of Neustadt, Germany a young boy named Emil Tischbein (Bryan Russell) is boarding a bus to Berlin with a bouquet of flowers in his hand and four hundred marks (the German currency at the time) pinned inside his coat to give his grandmother.

In this universe, checks don't exist.

There's just one problem: A criminal known as Herr Grundeis (AKA "The Mole," played by Heinz Schubert) witnesses Emil's mother pinning the envelope to his jacket and decides to rob the child.
Not going to lie: This man steals more than money -- he steals the show.

Grundeis hypnotizes the boy into falling asleep and deftly picks his pocket. Emil awakens shortly afterward just as Grundeis is departing the bus, realizes that he's been robbed and runs after the criminal in pursuit. While shadowing The Mole Emil runs into an enterprising teenager named Gustav Fleischmann (Roger Mobley), who (among the dozens of business cards in his pocket) claims to be a detective.
"Of course I'm a detective! Why else would I wear this porn hat and silk scarf?"

After the two agree on a fee of ten marks, Gustav follows the criminal only to lose him, but not before getting a clue: Most of a torn-up note that details a meeting at a hotel… But the name of the hotel is the piece that is missing. Emil follows Gustav while he assembles a rag-tag team of boys that he calls his "detectives." Briefing his team on the situation, the boys quickly disperse throughout Berlin, casing hotels to find The Mole based on Emil's description, while sending a note to Emil's grandmother so that she doesn't worry. The note is intercepted by Emil's school newspaper reporter cousin, Pony (Cindy Cassell) who begins trailing the detectives to find Emil.
"But I'm grandma, I'm just a plucky America-- er, German girl!"

Eventually, the kids find The Mole and his coconspirators, giant thug Müller (Peter Ehrlich) and his boss, The Baron (Walter Slezak).
"Gentlemen, I've got a plan that hinges on me doing absolutely nothing!"

While trying to get evidence to get the police to intervene, the young troupe uncover a plot that involves a hidden underground tunnel system and a bank robbery. Can Emil and the detectives get back the money and defeat the criminals?
SPOILERS: No, and no.

Some background

This movie is based on a 1929 German novel by writer Erich Kästner that was translated to English in 1931. Aside from being his most popular novel, it's also his only novel that wasn't censored by the Nazi regime that was in control at the time. It was adapted for Disney by writer A.J. Carothers (who mostly wrote television serials and television movies) and directed by Peter Tewksbury (who frequently directed several popular TV shows of the time). This isn't even the first time it's been adapted, having a German film in 1931, a 1935 British remake, a post-war West German remake in 1954, as well as several television serials based on the story.

Good things

At its core, this is a typical "boy detective" style tale, where the kids are basically ignored or discounted by the adult characters and are forced to rely on their wits and resourcefulness in order to outwit seasoned criminals.

"You stupid kids with your stupid credible story!"

The introduction of the film aggrandizes the criminals, referred to as "The Three Skrinks." For clarification, the film uses the term "skrink" as slang for "crook" or "jerk," possibly in the hopes that it would catch on (it didn't). It has adventure, intrigue, interesting villains (well, for a kids movie anyway), while being relatively family friendly.

Not quite as good things

The problem with the film is the setting. Or the characters. Take your pick: The problem is that the characters don’t fit the setting. Let me explain: This version of the story takes place in post-World War II Berlin, during the Cold War before the fall of Communism. That means that Berlin is still split into West Berlin and East Berlin. The wall that separated these communities and threatened war for so long is referenced in the film, but otherwise every opportunity is taken to make Berlin seem sunny, bright and carefree… Except for the burned out building (obviously a holdover from the war) that much of the end of the film takes place in. This on its own would be fine, except that all the adults are played by German actors and actresses, while all the children seemed like they were bussed in from America.

"I must be German. I mean, I'm white, aren't I?"

So you get shifty Gustav Fleischmann, dressed for all the world like a cross between Pinocchio and Lampwick speaking with an American accent.
"Hey, youse guys wanna see the Reichstag? Fuggetaboutit!"

All of the kids seem like American imports, and while this was obviously done to make the kids more palatable to American audiences, it doesn't mesh well with the distinctly European locales.

Pretty safe for kids

On the whole, it's not exactly the most interesting story, but it is entirely watchable. Kids today might be a little bored by the pacing while being confused by the black and white televisions and rotary dial telephones. It predates the MPAA film rating system, but it's easily a soft PG. There's no strong language and no nudity or sex. There is tobacco use as well as the threat of gun violence and death by dynamite (which adds to much of the drama in the second half of the film), if that's a concern.

The villains don't seem that threatening until they are.

Where can you find it?

"Emil and the Detectives" is currently streaming on Disney+.

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