Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Emil And The Detectives

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Emil And The Detectives

On paper, Emil And The Detectives makes total sense as a Disney film. It’s based on a perennially popular young adult novel. It features an ensemble of kids taking on a trio of over-the-top, cartoony bad guys. And later in the decade, these kinds of lightweight mystery/heist/caper pictures would become the studio’s bread and butter. But in practice, Emil And The Detectives is a sluggish affair that never fully delivers the fun promised by its animated opening title sequence.

Author Erich Kästner was no stranger to the Disney studio. His novel Lottie And Lisa formed the basis for the Hayley Mills blockbuster The Parent Trap. Emil And The Detectives was published in 1929 and had already been adapted to film in Germany, England and Japan. The 1931 German version was an early screenwriting credit for Billy Wilder. Walt’s version would be written by A.J. Carothers, who had previously handled the script for Miracle Of The White Stallions.

Director Peter Tewksbury was new to Disney, although he’d worked with Disney Legend Fred MacMurray on his sitcom, My Three Sons. Emil And The Detectives would turn out to be his only Disney credit. After this, he worked primarily in TV and directed a couple of Elvis Presley’s later movies.

The story is pretty simple. Young Emil (Bryan Russell) is sent to visit his grandmother in Berlin. His mother gives him 400 marks to deliver to Grandma, pinning it to the inside of his coat so he won’t lose it. Unfortunately, she does this in full view of Grundeis (Heinz Schubert), a “skrink” in a loud checkered suit and a bowler hat.

What, you may well ask, is a skrink? According to the film (which represents the only recorded use of the term, as near as I can tell), it’s a low, dishonest, disreputable person, often a criminal although not necessarily. Variations of the expression get used throughout the movie, as in “my skrinky sister”. By the end, you’ll wish you had a time machine to go prevent A.J. Carothers from trying to make “skrink” happen.

Anyway, Grundeis hops on board the bus and finagles his way into the seat next to Emil. He pulls out a pocket watch and hypnotizes Emil into falling asleep. Once that’s done, he picks Emil’s pocket and hops off the bus. If he’d been a better hypnotist, he probably would have gotten away with it. But Emil wakes up the second the door closes, so he gets off the bus and follows Grundeis to a nearby café.

While he’s spying on Grundeis, Emil meets Gustav (Roger Mobley), a street kid who seems to have a hustle for all occasions. When Emil explains the situation, Gustav whips out a business card introducing himself as a private detective. Since Emil has no proof that Grundeis stole his money, the police are useless. So Emil hires Gustav and his team of boy detectives to take the case.

Their one clue is a note Grundeis tried to destroy setting a time and place for a meeting that evening. Gustav saved most of it but the part with the name of the hotel got away (it went “skrinking off down the gutter”), so they split up to stake out all the hotels in the area. While this is going on, Emil sends a note to his grandmother, assuring her that he’s okay. But the message is intercepted by Emil’s cousin, Pony (Cindy Cassell), a cub reporter for her school newspaper. Sensing there’s a story in this, Pony trails the messenger boy back to Emil.

Grundeis meets two other skrinks, The Baron (Walter Slezak) and Müller (Peter Ehrlich). The three skrinks have hatched a plan to rob a bank by tunneling into it from the ruins of an old building nearby. Emil and Gustav spend the night at the ruins but the next morning, Emil is discovered and taken prisoner by the Baron. With their client missing, the detectives decide it’s finally time to call in the police. The cops show them a number of mug shots, one of which bears the name “Albert Jahnke”, which just so happens to be my grandfather’s name. I had no idea I had skrinks in my family tree.

The Baron ends up finding a use for Emil after all when Müller blows a hole through the wall that’s too small for any of the skrinks to fit through. Emil squeezes into the vault and passes as much cash as possible back to the thieves. But the Baron had always planned on double-crossing Grundeis. As soon as he and Müller get to safety, he rigs a dynamite charge to trap Grundeis and Emil underground.

While Gustav tries to rescue Emil, the rest of the detectives stay on the Baron and Müller’s trail. As they try to escape on foot, the detectives spread a rumor that they’re carrying a bagful of money and stopping every few blocks to give it away. Before long, every kid in the neighborhood is hot on their heels looking for a handout. The police arrive, the skrinks are carted off to jail and everyone agrees to never use the term “skrink” again.

Emil And The Detectives certainly has a lot of potential. The idea of a bunch of kids forming a private detective club is pretty irresistible. Erich Kästner’s book went on to inspire everything from The Famous Five to Encyclopedia Brown to the late Richard Donner’s movie The Goonies. But part of the trouble is not a whole lot actually happens in this movie. Especially in the first half, there’s way too much sitting around and waiting. Staking out hotel lobbies may be a realistic part of detective work but it isn’t much fun to watch. Things pick up considerably when Emil gets captured and Tewksbury instills those scenes with a sense of real danger. But it all happens too late to save the picture.

The other problem is the kids themselves. They’re pretty interchangeable and don’t have the most dynamic personalities in the world. Apart from the Professor (Brian Richardson), who likes to show off his ten-dollar vocabulary, and the twins (Ron and Rick Johnson), who are twins, I couldn’t tell you much about these kids. Say what you will about The Goonies but those kids had very distinct, colorful personalities. The detectives just seem like average, ordinary kids.

Walt may have agreed with that assessment because almost none of the young actors ever appeared in another movie, much less another Disney project. The two exceptions were Emil and Gustav. Bryan Russell had already been in one Disney movie, an uncredited appearance in Babes In Toyland. He’ll be back in this column but he’d also go on to appear in a couple of productions for Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color, including Kilroy, a comedy about an ex-Marine who has a big effect on his best friend’s hometown.  

Roger Mobley will also return to this column but he had an even bigger impact on TV. In 1965, Walt gave him the title role in The Adventures Of Gallegher. As an ambitious copyboy determined to make a name for himself as a reporter at the turn of the century, Mobley snooped his way through four series of Gallegher over the next three years. Walt seemed to be grooming Mobley for bigger things. His name was one of four jotted down (along with another actor we’ll be seeing soon enough, Kurt Russell) on Walt’s cryptic last memo before his death in 1966. But Mobley’s acting career was interrupted in 1968 when he was drafted into the Army. After a tour of duty with the 46th Special Forces Company (Airborne) in Vietnam, Mobley never quite picked up the threads of his former career. We’ll see him again but it appears that he was quite content to leave acting behind.

We won’t be seeing any of the adult actors again, which is a bit surprising. Walter Slezak is certainly the best known of the three. He’d been in the industry since the silent days and had become a reliable character actor in movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat. He’s a lot of fun as the pretentious Baron, hauling an ornate table setting, caviar and fine wine down into an underground tunnel. He’d have made a fine addition to the Disney roster of cosmopolitan villains.

Heinz Schubert and Peter Ehrlich were both German actors who never made much of a dent outside their home country but were particularly prolific on German television. They both acquit themselves well here. Schubert especially has an amusing physicality that draws you to him whenever he’s on screen. He has dialogue but the way he moves is reminiscent of silent film comedians. Maybe if the movie had been a bigger hit, Schubert would have had more opportunity to break through in America.

As it happened, Emil And The Detectives wasn’t a hit. It was positioned as the studio’s big Christmas release for 1964. And to be fair, Disney’s previous film, Mary Poppins, was continuing to cast a very long shadow. Any movie would have struggled to live up to the expectations set by that juggernaut. Despite some favorable reviews, Emil And The Detectives pulled in less than $2 million at the box office. By 1966, Walt had relegated it to TV status.

One other thing I should add about Emil And The Detectives. Despite its relative obscurity, Disney has elected to include it on Disney+. However, that version opens with a disclaimer stating the film has been edited for content. I can find no information about what exactly that edited content might be. There’s nothing that stands out as an obvious trim. Maybe the original version was a bit more violent? I really don’t know, so if anyone can shed some light on this mystery, I’d love to hear it.

VERDICT: It isn’t the skrinkiest movie you’ll ever see but anything this inconsequential has to be considered a Disney Minus.  

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