Take 3: Emil and the Detectives (1964) Review

November’s Genre Grandeur focuses on Live Action Disney Films. Since I happen to have a few movies of this nature on my DVR, I had some options for this month’s event. I also wanted to participate in Taking Up Room’s Distraction Blogathon. Because “red herrings” and “dangling carrots” are a part of the movie distractions subject, I decided to review one film for both events; the 1964 title, Emil and the Detectives. Before both blogathons, I had this movie on my DVR for two years. The intention to review the film was there, but I hadn’t gotten around to writing about it. With these aforementioned events, I now have an excuse to finally talk about Emil and the Detectives! So, find a comfy seat and grab your magnifying glasses, as I’m about to review this 1964 live-action project from Disney!

This poster for Emil and the Detectives is a screenshot from my television. Screenshot taken by me, Sally Silverscreen.

Things I liked about the film:

The camaraderie among the younger characters: When a story features a group of young characters who either are friends or become friends, the camaraderie between those characters needs to feel believable, especially if the story primarily revolves around them. With this movie, that camaraderie among Emil and the Detectives was definitely genuine! In the scene where Emil meets Gustav, the leader of the Detectives, the connection between these characters is strong, despite them having never met before. As Emil meets the rest of the Detectives, it feels like these group of boys have been friends all along. The strong camaraderie works with this story, as it gives the audience a reason to stay invested in the journey of the characters. The fact each character has their own distinct personality also works in the characters’ favor, as it allows each one to bring something different to the table. The acting performances and the script add to the strength of the characters’ camaraderie, as it makes the interactions between these characters look and feel realistic!

The German backdrop: Thinking about live-action Disney films from this time-period/era, Germany wouldn’t immediately come to mind for me when it comes to a movie’s setting. Even though this studio has created projects with interesting settings, such as The Moon-Spinners, these titles seem like exceptions to the rule. Emil and the Detectives not only takes place in Germany, but was also filmed there as well. While the story’s setting is the city, some of the buildings possess an old-world charm. The apartments displayed wood and brick styles, carrying a more vintage appearance than their more contemporary counterparts seen today. The details of these apartments were also very distinctive. When Pony meets one of the Detectives, her grandmother’s apartment door boasts a rich dark wood. A small stained-glass window and a gold mail slot can also be seen, emphasizing the antique fixtures of yesteryear. Toward the end of the film, the story takes place in an abandoned structure in ruin. Not only was the structure itself impressive, but it served as a reminder of the state of Germany post World War II. Because this film was released nineteen years after the end of World War II, it shows how these characters are not that far removed from this real-life event, providing a sense of realism to the story.

An introduction to the Film Noir genre: Back in 2018, I reviewed the 1978 Disney production, Return from Witch Mountain. In that review, I said the film and its predecessor, Escape to Witch Mountain, would be good introductions to the Science-Fiction (Sci-Fi) genre. Emil and the Detectives is also a good genre introduction, but to the Film Noir genre this time. While this film is not dark and gritty, the elements of Film Noir are certainly present. One great example is the character of Gustav. When a Film Noir story includes a detective, that character will usually have a strong, magnetic personality. This shows the audience this character can be trusted and is also approachable. Gustav is a charismatic child. Even though he is nowhere near perfect, solving any case is always his number one goal. He also displays strong leadership skills, such as helping the other Detectives use their skills to the case’s advantage. Despite being a child, Gustav is somewhat reminiscent of other detectives from the world of Film Noir, such as Philip from The Big Sleep.

The Distraction Blogathon banner created by Rebecca from Taking Up Room

What I didn’t like about the film:

Limited number of German accents: During the film’s opening credits, German-sounding names were shown on-screen. These opening credits also state Emil and the Detectives was filmed in West Berlin (a term very much of its time). So, I was expecting the majority of the characters to carry German accents. To my disappointment, the only characters using German accents were the adults. The younger characters spoke in either American or British accents, a creative decision I found somewhat jarring. I’m not going to fault the younger actors too much, especially since they were so young when they participated in this project. However, it does make me wonder why the movie’s creative team chose to set this story in Germany if they weren’t able to find actors who could pull off a German accent?

Weaker villains: There are three ingredients to making a stand-out villain: a unique appearance, a strong personality, and a memorable motive. While the Skrinks, the villains of Emil and the Detectives, possess two of the ingredients, they lack the latter: a motive. In one scene, the Skrinks are impressed by how one of the villains, The Mole, escaped from East Berlin by digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall. But The Mole’s reason for wanting to escape from East Berlin is never revealed. Throughout the film, the Skrinks are attempting to rob a bank. Once again, the reason for committing this crime is not mentioned by any of the villains. The omission of these motives prevent the Skrinks from standing out among other villains from live-action Disney films.

Pony’s under-utilized talents: One of the younger characters, Pony, is interested in writing and journalism. She follows Emil and the Detectives because she wants to write about the Skrinks’ crime for her school’s newspaper. But, throughout the film, the audience doesn’t get to see Pony using any of her writing/journalistic skills. This is a shame because we do get to see the talents of the Detectives. For example, one of the boys happens to be talented in art. Therefore, his talents are used to create an artist’s rendition of one of the villains.

Map of Germany image created by Macrovector at freepik.com. Background vector created by macrovector – www.freepik.com. Image found at freepik.com.

My overall impression:

1964’s Emil and the Detectives is certainly one of Disney’s more unique, interesting projects. On the one hand, it kind of feels like a Disney production. The way two of the Skrinks are captured contains that “Disney magic” you’d expect from one of their stories. But, on the other hand, it kind of doesn’t feel like a production from Disney. That’s because the Detectives assume child-appropriate versions of actions and choices usually adopted by grown-ups. A perfect example is when Emil and one of the Detectives eat chocolate cigarettes as they wait for a phone call from the rest of their group. As I said in my review, Emil and the Detectives is a good introduction to the Film Noir genre, especially for younger viewers. Some of the genre’s elements are present, but the humor and light-heartedness prevent the story from becoming too dark. I can’t believe this movie has been sitting on my DVR for two years. While I always intended to review this picture, I’m glad I found the perfect opportunity to finally talk about it!

Overall score: 7.3-7.4 out of 10

Have you seen Emil and the Detectives? Are there any lesser known, live-action Disney films you’d like me to check out? Please let me know in the comment section below!

Have fun at the movies!

Sally Silverscreen