Erich Kastner’s much-filmed 1928 children’s classic, “Emil and the Detectives,” comes up fresh as a daisy in this ebullient modernization of the story about a bunch of kids who track down a thief in the crowded streets of Berlin. A robustly staged family film, pic should attract audiences in countries where the book is well known, and have plenty of ancillary life down the track.
Kastner’s book, which also inspired the 1946 Ealing comedy “Hue and Cry,” has been updated to the era of skateboards, roller-skates and cell phones, but the plot is still much the same. Emil (Tobias Retzlaff) is a 12 year old who lives with his father in a small town in East Germany; his mother left them a couple of years earlier and lives in Canada with her new man. Dad has been unemployed for a while, but has just managed to snag a job as a salesman; however, in a cruel stroke of bad luck, he crashes his car while hurrying to collect Emil from school, winds up in the hospital with some broken limbs and, crucially, loses his driver’s license for three months.
While his father is recovering, Emil’s teacher sends the boy by train to Berlin to stay with the teacher’s sister, a minister in a protestant church, and herself a single mother. But during the journey, Emil makes the mistake of talking to a stranger (Jurgen Vogel) about the possibility of obtaining an illegal license for his Dad; as a result, he is drugged and robbed of his money.
When the train pulls in to Berlin’s Zoo station, Emil, who has never been in the big, bad city before, succeeds in trailing the thief to a cafe, where he meets Pony, a girl his own age who has all the street smarts, and the contacts among children of all backgrounds, to muster a formidable force of detectives’ to foil the bad guy.
Rest of the film involves a great deal of good old-fashioned adventure, suspense and comedy, as the kinder track the thief down to the swank Hotel Adlon, where he’s robbing a few safes. Meanwhile, Gypsy, whose parents have so many kids they won’t notice he’s gone missing, is ordered to take Emil’s place and stay at the home of the minister, where he wreaks a fair amount of havoc.
Adaptor-director Franziska Buch enters into the swing of things with enthusiasm, directing a cast of enthusiastic youngsters with pace and a fine feel for Berlin locations. Snappy music, bright camerawork and an engaging cast succeed in breathing new life into a well-loved yarn.