Though the era of feature films made by the Walt Disney Company when Walt was still alive is often regarded as the golden age of Disney movies, 1964 proves that like any other studio, Disney was just as capable of releasing an enduring classic like Mary Poppins as well as tedious swill like Emil and the Detectives.
After a moderately eye-catching animated opening that gave you hope you were in for some intriguing cloak and dagger story, the film instantly fills the screen with such an odious experience, you wonder if you’re smelling 75 year old sauerkraut left over from the catering used at the West German filming locations.
While not the Disney magic they were aiming for, the film manages to display an otherworldly quality in that it manages to alienate as soon as the story begins. For reasons unknown to this day, the artistic decision was made to have the action described by an unseen narrator, who is in full Dragnet mode. The gimmick is quite needless and in fact squanders the opportunity to get know Emil since the narrator merely tells us what he is doing as we watch him and his mom silently prepare him for a trip to his grandmother’s house. Worse, one of the villains, a pickpocket, is also introduced this way and his actions resemble those of an over-the-top silent film comedian.
The events setting the story in motion amount to what modern viewers would call “child neglect” as the mother of Emil (he can’t be any older than 7 or 8) gives him 400 Marks, putting it in his pocket outside on a busy street where everyone can see and then loads him on bus by himself to visit his grandmother in Berlin.
The pickpocket (known as the Mole) is watching all this, gets on the same bus and steals Emil’s money while he is sleeping. (A sign of how much things have changed since 1964, no one else on the bus is concerned that a strange man in an ugly checkered suit is putting his hand inside the coat of a sleeping child.)
Emil wakes to find he’s been robbed and gets off the bus in an effort to track down the Mole and get his money back. He encounters an older boy named Gustav (Roger Mobley of The Treasure of San Bosco Reef and not convincing as German kid at all even despite the goofy German hat and coat he wears), a schemer trying to sell tours and any other service he can dream up, including his private detective service. For just 10 Marks, he agrees to take Emil’s case.
Gustav is actually the leader of a whole group of neighborhood boys who fancy themselves detectives to the point that they all have large gaudy badges that they wear. (It’s another sign of the times that all the other kids at school don’t immediately make fun of them and beat them up for such dopey antics.)
Gustav explains who each kid is but there’s nothing particularly interesting or memorable about any of them other than that one kids uses big words and two other kids happen to be identical twins. Emil’s cousin Pony has more of a personality than any of them and she doesn’t even really matter to the story that much.
Incredibly, the movie begins to drag in earnest once the kid detectives set about tracking down the Mole. Their investigation involves staking out hotels and following him to the ruins of a bombed out building (the movie is based on a German book, but outside of the need for some ruins located within a major city, nothing of note is really added to film by setting it in Berlin other than all the weird names used), but it’s all consistently dull with the kids doing virtually nothing.
The Mole disappears into the ruins with two accomplices because they have a plan to rob the bank across the street and the Mole is needed for his expert tunneling skills. Emil gets himself caught underground by the thieves and the remainder of the film details the efforts of the kid detectives to find him. Efforts which amount to stumbling around the ruins yelling his name, arguing about whether to tell the police and then finally telling the police who don’t believe them. (A phone call from Gustav pretending to be Pony’s dad does spur them to action for some reason.)
Walter Slezak as the brains of the bank robbing gang is the singular bright spot, his sophistication in the face of dealing with his partners – a pickpocket and a hoodlum – provide the film’s sole source of amusement. He’s also the smartest, rightfully berating the Mole for jeopardizing the big bank job by stealing a few hundred Marks from a little kid. And while you never warm to Gustav because he’s such annoying know-it-all, Emil actually garners a little respect for toughening up during his captivity and resisting his captors demands, even while staring down the barrel of a gun.
On balance though, there is so little action and suspense throughout that the film was forced to rely on its bland group of kids and mostly silly villains to carry things which the limp script steadfastly refused to do.
Emil and the Detectives is such a complete failure, it even felt compelled to end the film by resurrecting its worst element, revisiting the hard boiled narrator and allowing him to pointlessly wrap things up in eye-rolling fashion.
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