Being a fan of The Three Investigators books since the 1970's, I was excited when I first learned that this German production was available on Region 1 DVD. The Three Investigators had become extremely popular in Germany, so much so that new Three Investigator books were written and published in Germany. Known as "Die Drei", the series was also adapted for radio dramas. The original series published by Random House, ran from 1964 through 1987, and produced 43 books. By comparison, the number of books published in Germany is reportedly upwards of 150!
Why a series about three teenage boys operating from a junkyard in Rocky Beach, California, captured the hearts of those in Germany, may be a mystery, but it is due to that phenomenon that the film The Three Investigators: The Secret of Skeleton Island (2007) came to be. This movie was followed by a sequel, an adaptation of the detectives' very first adventure, The Secret of Terror Castle, released in Europe in 2009.
In Skeleton Island, the film's producers incorporate some of the basic elements of the Three Investigators' mythology, but little from the original novel. After an introduction to Jupiter Jones (Chancellor Miller), Pete Crenshaw (Nick Price), and Bob Andrews (Cameron Monaghan), and glimpse inside their secret headquarters in the Jones Salvage yard, the setting shifts to South Africa, as the boys join Pete's father Al (Nigel Whitney), who is building an amusement park on Skeleton Island, for a woman named Miss Wilbur (Fiona Ramsay).
On Skeleton Island they meet Chris (Naima Sebe), a young girl who later hires the boys, after her father Gamba (Akin Omotoso), a native chief who opposes the construction of the park, is arrested for assaulting Miss Wilbur. Involved in a case that also features an ancient legend, the Three Investigators narrowly escape death while searching for clues. Back home they would ride bikes for transportation, but here they rely on taxis, and Bill, an associate of Al Crenshaw, who chauffeurs them around. With Chris joining the boys, they discover that a painting may hold the key to solving an ancient mystery and discovering a lost treasure. Intended for kids perhaps 8 and above, the movie has instances of superb cinematography, and breathtaking scenery, and is reasonably entertaining, featuring action, adventure, animals, and kids acting independently. The story is relatively complicated, with does include some adult concepts.
Recognizing that adapting characters over 40 years old, is bound to entail some changes, I'll examine the film from my perspective as a fan. That said, while a decent adventure, I don't feel that the story really captures the essence of The Three Investigators, or their relationships with each other. The casting of the boys is kind of marginal. Chancellor Miller probably comes the closest, as he displays some of the smugness, and flair for the dramatic that Jupiter had, although he doesn't suffer from being slightly overweight. Pete was the athletic one, and Nick Price kind of assumes that role at times, but the writers don't capture his sense of reserve and cautiousness. Cameron Monaghan as Bob seems the most miscast, or perhaps more accurately, the movie gets Bob's character completely wrong. In the books, Bob was much more intelligent and poised, than he is portrayed here, where Bob, is clearly the "baby" in the group. When he spouts information, his pronouncements seem staged, like reciting a speech. Having all three boys expressing an interest in Chris, and particularly having her sleep over in their room, would never have happened in the original books.
Setting events in a foreign land far from home, gives the writers a free hand, and they take full advantage, jettisoning almost everything associated with the series' mythology. The Investigators' unique business card, and a peek at their secret headquarters, among the few elements imported from the books. The most critical element is clearly The Three Investigators themselves, and the movie isn't quite on target in capturing their personalities. On the good side, technology and gadgets do not figure prominently in the story, the boys are not obnoxious, and though they don't often succeed, at times, the writers do attempt to come up with dialog that reflects the books.
The opening scene in an elevator shaft, and subsequent arrival at an art auction, is nonsensical, reckless, and totally out of character. Things do improve, but never seem to get completely on the right track. With not much else of substance to grab on to, the writers turn to the character Victor Hugenay (James Faulkner), the master thief that the boy detectives had repeatedly tangled with in the books. They do work Hugenay into the story in a clever way, and ramp up the action nicely in the final act, going "Indiana Jones", giving the movie a dramatic, big studio type finish.
Some of the issues evaded in the first film, are apparently dealt with in the sequel, The Secret of Terror Castle. Set in California, this film features Jupiter's Aunt Matilda, and Uncle Titus Jones, highly significant characters in the books, as well as Worthington, the chauffer of a Rolls Royce, who aided the Investigators many times. Probably not a good thing, but Victor Hugenay returns. I have yet to see it, but the true measure of the filmmakers' vision of The Three Investigators, should be realized in this second film. I wonder what role if any, the German books play in the film adaptations.
As entertainment for kids, Skeleton Island is a decent 3.5 star effort. However as a representation of cherished childhood memory, the movie regretfully does not do The Three Investigators true justice. Although I do appreciate the attempt, it only rates 2 stars, bringing my overall rating to 3 stars.