City of Ember is the sort of movie I would have worshipped as a kid. Its unique style and emphasis on discovery help it fit right in with Flight of the Navigator, The Goonies, and the countless other adventures that comprised my cinematic diet back in the day. At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old-timer, they just don't make movies like this anymore, truly riveting tales all too often pushed to the side in favor of something heavy on the lame-brained pratfalls. It may not be the "be all, end all" of family pictures, but City of Ember has a lot more going for it than a good chunk of the material usually aimed at the grade-school set.
Once upon a time, a catastrophic disaster forced a fraction of mankind to retreat into an underground city called Ember. A box was entrusted to the city's mayors, a box that would open in 200 years and provide instructions on what to do next. But those two centuries have passed, and the box has long since been lost to the sands of time. It's especially unfortunate, since the generator keeping Ember surging with power is beginning to fail, and various sections of the city are crumbling apart as well. With a lame-duck mayor (Bill Murray) who assures the people of Ember that everything's under control, the task of figuring out how to save the city falls into the hands of two children. Lina (Saoirse Ronan), a rambunctious girl who uncovers the forgotten box, joins forces with stalwart pipe worker Doon (Harry Treadaway) in order to defy the mayor and escape Ember before it's too late.
City of Ember opened in the fall of 2008 to a rather chilly reception, especially financially speaking. It was easily overshadowed by the likes of High School Musical 3 and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, though heaven knows why. This film has more spark (pardon the pun) in one frame than those two did in their entireties, but for some reason, kids didn't respond that well. Perhaps it was too retro-looking for their tastes, too offbeat and risky to dive into right off the bat. But if being original and creative (in an era when Hollywood's annual output indicates that it's anything but) is a crime, then consider City of Ember guilty as charged. It's the first movie I've seen in many an age that immerses you in such a fantastic, complex world with seemingly little effort. Though director Gil Kenan (Monster House) firmly establishes that Ember isn't that great of a place to live, I still felt like diving through the screen and exploring the city on my own. It's a veritable labyrinth, packed with all sorts of gadgets, gizmos, mazelike corridors, and lights as far as the eye can see. Kenan does a masterful job of not only bringing Ember to life but ensuring that you don't forget it too soon.
But other than being flat-out amazing on a visual scale, City of Ember also hooks you in with its solid storytelling. Kenan carefully establishes the mystique behind Ember's existence before launching Lina and Doon into an engaging race against time. It goes without saying, though, that the first two-thirds work better than the last one, in which the script apparently decided to drop what it was doing and make a mad dash to the end credits. The climax feels painfully rushed, and a few too many questions are left unanswered. Much like The Golden Compass, City of Ember has a nasty of habit of setting itself up for the sequel it really, really wants. I'm fine with being kept in the dark on some matters, but when you throw in a multitude of half-developed supporting characters and a few bizarre creatures without explanation, then color me irked. Still, kudos is in store for Treadaway and (especially) Ronan for delivering spunky and spirited performances. Some of the adult cast members are left in the dust (Murray included), but these kids know just how to get you rooting for them during their perilous quest.
Now that City of Ember has made its DVD debut, I hope parents will take the time to introduce this undeservedly shunned gem to their little ones. It's a tad scary at times, but it has an adventurous spirit that can't be beat, as well as a good message about hanging onto hope in the darkest of hours.