Emil and the Detectives

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Emil and the Detectives Movie Poster Image
Kids outsmart criminals in engaging detective story.
  • PG
  • 1964
  • 99 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Meant to entertain rather than educate.

Positive Messages

Crooks look just like anyone else. Kids can be smart and independent and figure things out without the help of grownups. Grownups aren't always that helpful.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Gustav is a confident, bright, mature, unafraid, and enterprising 12-year-old who offers guided tours of the city and also detective services for a fee.

Violence & Scariness

A pickpocket steals a boy's 400 marks. Criminals plan to tunnel into a bank, using dynamite, and rob the vault. A boy is held at gunpoint. Explosions rock an unsteady building. Someone is found underneath some rubble, but he's okay. People sit in a dangerous tunnel and nearly drown when it's flooded. A tall man comically bangs his head on a low doorframe. A criminal tries to kill his hostage and coconspirator.

Sexy Stuff
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults smoke cigars and drink wine. It's implied that a boy's father is a drinker, someone who won't notice his son hasn't come home at night because it's payday.  

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Emil and the Detectives is a 1964 Disney feature, from the 1929 novel by Erich Kastner, about young boys who team up to track down a pickpocket and bring down a trio of criminals involved in a bank heist. There are a few tense moments. A boy is knocked down in an explosion and another is held at gunpoint by a criminal, but all suspenseful moments lead to a safe and happy ending that vindicates the independence and enterprise of a group of bright young kids who manage to catch some criminals the police completely miss. Adults smoke cigars and drink wine. It's implied that a boy's father is a drinker, someone who won't notice his son hasn't come home at night because it's payday.  

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What's the story?

In EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES, young Emil (Bryan Russell) is traveling alone by bus from a small German town to Berlin, where he's to deliver 400 marks to his grandmother. His mom has pinned the money to the inside of his suit, a fact observed by a veteran pickpocket named Grundeis (Heinz Schubert), who boards the same bus and easily grabs the money. When he jumps off the bus, Emil pursues, tailing the thief through Berlin. There he meets the helpful Gustav (Roger Mobley), who offers his services as a private detective to get Emil's money back. The police have already told Emil his story isn't credible, so Gustav summons the rest of his boy-detective agency and they hatch a plan to track down Grundeis. Soon, it's clear that pickpocketing is small potatoes compared to the tunneling bank heist Grundeis is up to with the scheming Baron (Walter Slezak) and his henchperson Muller (Peter Ehrlich). The crime takes them to a bombed-out ruin across from the bank where Emil is taken hostage by the criminals. Gustav bravely keeps looking through the rubble for his missing client while his colleagues go to the police. The police talk down to and humor the kids, even after they successfully pick out the perp's mug shots. Yet the cops continue to do nothing until, it seems, a grownup intervenes. 

Is it any good?

Kids may still be interested in this '60s Disney movie. The beauty of Emil and the Detectives is that it offers young viewers, like all the best children's movies, a view of the world in which kids can exercise autonomy and agency in lives otherwise dominated by the often-incompetent adults who are usually in charge. Here kids solve the problems grownups can't even yet identify. For example, even when the boys are responsible enough to turn to the police, the authorities still just dismiss them as unserious pranksters making silly and mistaken claims. In life, kids often feel powerless and discounted by the adults who supposedly "know better," but here, the kids are all always right and the adults are almost always wrong, inept, and ineffective, until kids set them straight.

One boy, called "the professor," uses heady vocabulary, citing the "fallacious reasoning" behind someone's bad idea. In all, this may seem quaint to a cohort used to more sophisticated and coarser amusement readily available on the internet, but it's a solid entertainment choice for those who haven't yet been jaded.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about whether Emil should have gone off on his own to track the pickpocket who stole his money. What could he have done differently in Emil and the Detectives?

  • Gustav seems unusually independent for a boy his age. What are some reasons he might have grown to be so mature and able to take care of himself?

  • Do you sometimes feel that even though grownups are usually in charge, kids could sometimes do a better job of running things? What are some examples?

Movie details

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For kids who love Disney

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