Movie Review for City of Ember (2008)

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Review #703 of 365
Movie Review of City of Ember (2008) [PG] 95 minutes
WIP™ Scale: $11.25
Where Viewed: Regal Cinemas Continental 10, Denver, CO
When Seen: 10 October 2008 @ 5:20 pm
DVD Release Date: Unscheduled (please check back)
After the Credits: there is nothing
Unsung Member of the Crew: Motion Control 3D – Andy Bull

Soundtrack: order the CD below from

Directed by: Gil Kenan (Monster House)
Screenplay by: Caroline Thompson (Corpse Bride) based on the book The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau

Featured Cast (Where You Might Remember Him/Her From):
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) • Harry Treadaway (Control) • Tim Robbins (The Lucky Ones) • Bill Murray (Get Smart) • Toby Jones (The Mist) • Martin Landau ("Entourage") • Lucinda Dryzek ("Vital Signs") • Mary Kay Place ("Big Love") • Liz Smith (Keeping Mum) • Amy Quinn (Backwoods Bloodbath) • Catherine Quinn (debut) • Mackenzie Crook (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End)

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First off, I'm told that the movie begins with information that automatically ruins it from the perspective of people who've read the book. As I'm a well-established, see the movie before reading the book kind of person, I wouldn't know that were it not for friends that keep me informed on such matters. So, first, more evidence that seeing the movies before reading the books is a good idea is at hand, and second, just a reminder that this will be a review of the movie from the perspective of someone who's not yet read The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau.

The film's story begins with a top-level meeting of some Dr. Seuss-like scientists who put information in a box that will open in just 200 years to be given to the first mayor of the underground City of Ember that will provide for their escape from the city when the time is right. As the narrator continues, the box gets passed and passed, until it reaches the 7th Mayor whose untimely demise prevents the proper transfer of the box to the new mayor. The box is stored away in the closet and forgotten. At some point after the box would have unlocked and opened, the City of Ember is in trouble. The generator that supplies all the power for the lights is on its last leg and no one knows really how to fix it. Blackouts lasting longer and longer bedevil the townspeople and cause minor bouts with panic. As is tradition, on their 12th birthdays, the townschildren graduate and are randomly assigned jobs by drawing one from a hat to replace the people who've been lost in the past year. Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) draw jobs to each other's liking and swap. Harry had long dreamed of working in the Pipeworks and fixing the town's generator, while Lina prefers to be a messenger allowing her to run free and carry the words of people from all over town including eventually mysterious ones from a storeroom worker named Looper (Mackenzie Crook) to Mayor Cole (Bill Murray). Doon's father, Loris (Tim Robbins) gives his son some strange gadget for his birthday with a wink and some cryptic saying about how he'll know what it does when he needs it to work and that a bottle cap is more than something to hold soda in a bottle. Doon vacillates in viewing his father as far too eccentric or far to unmotivated to solve the problems of Ember. Lina lives with her grandmother and baby sister, Poppy (Amy and Catherine Quinn). Poppy finds a strange box in their closet, opens it and starts chewing up the information inside. Lina finds it just in time to save the bulk of the round map-like contents, but Poppy has destroyed a lot of it. She shares the strange map and box with Doon, and the two begin a mission to uncover its meaning which they both suspect may have something to do with getting out of Ember into the dark world beyond.

Director Gil Kenan, famous for his 3D animated film, Monster House, is a genius when it comes to bringing alive a set (real or animated). The City of Ember is astonishing as are the many, amazing mechanical sets. As was the case with Monster House, the surroundings are as much a character in the film as any of the living beings. He seems equally adept at directing live action characters inhabited by real actors as he was with the animated ones of Monster House. And the actors all did very worthy jobs when it comes to bringing their characters to life. Of course, there's an immediate problem with the ages that will bother some people. Harry Treadaway was born in 1984. If my math serves me correctly, that makes him 24 playing a 12-year old. Saoirse Ronan was born in 1994 that makes her 14—granted, a lot closer to 12, but still older and incongruously younger than her principle co-actor. To be fair, Harry does a very good job with Doon nonetheless looking a bit like a kid who got held back in 6th grade a few too many years in a row. Otherwise, the actors are super. Bill Murray can play a very creepy villainous type when he wants to, and he does her with the Mayor who's apparently up to no good while simultaneously giving motivational speeches about the future of Ember. Martin Landau is funny as Doon's Pipeworks mentor Sul as it Toby Jones as the Mayor's secretary, Barton Snode. Tim Robbins's role is small but he subscribes to the motto, there are no small roles, and typically gives the role his best. The film is paced well and moves constantly toward what seems to direction things are heading: Doon and Lina have got to find a way out of Ember before the city crumbles in the looming darkness.

All of that said, people who've read the book will ask questions that may or may not pop in the minds of people who haven't and that is does the movie work? Is it good? Does it explore the many metaphors the book holds so dear. Quite simply, no. In fact, had I not spoken with book readers after the film, I'd have never realized the metaphors, partly because the film gives away what the city is from the beginning, and partly because the film doesn't delve very deeply into anything. It's a film, I describe as being about a journey.

Too much time was spent building the sets and not enough time was spent on building the story.
Only in this case, the journey isn't very far, and the characters involved don't realize they're on this journey until quite late. The film doesn't really get into why the city has to be built, but it's obvious that something has happened on the surface of the earth to make living there up top impossible, at least for the next 200 years. The depths of the characters, also are barely assembled in the film. In other words, we don't know much about them, and what little we do must be drawn from inference. Finally, the ending, fails to supply the lift one might suspect it would knowing what you know now. Ironically, it's a tiny bit anti-climatic. City of Ember isn't a bad movie, it's just not a very good movie. Too much time was spent building the sets and not enough time was spent on building the story.

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Cast Members
Saoirse RonanHarry TreadawayTim Robbins
Bill MurrayToby JonesMartin Landau
Lucinda DryzekMary Kay PlaceLiz Smith
Amy QuinnMackenzie Crook
Gil Kenan
Caroline Thompson

Review-lite City of Ember (2008) [max of 150 words]
With too much time spent building the sets vs. the story, City of Ember turned out to be a mediocre film despite the great acting, special effects, and interesting premise. Probably, the script should have stayed closer to the book and worked harder at maintaining it's layers and metaphors which all but disintegrate in this cinematic version. Likewise, it probably should have protected the mystery of Ember until the end to have made it more spectacular and special. Monster House director Gil Kenan, however, proves again he knows how to make the sets come alive as much as the regular characters in his film.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I made the mistake of watching the movie. The two main actors weren't bad, however, the more known "names" were barely tolerable--or maybe just boring. The movie left me with the impression some scenes that may have explained something in other scenes had been cut. At another level, it just felt like lackluster, liberal-agenda attempt at...what?