We critics like to argue that Hollywood defangs most family fare. Unless it can find a viable commercial tie-in, or lead to a series of equally superficial sequels, studio suits avoid anything remotely dark or contentious. Apparently, the applicable philosophy argues that childhood is a time of innocence and fun, therefore, any movie aimed at said audience should be even more fluffy and non-threatening. Watching City of Ember, the latest live-action effort from Monster House director Gil Kenan
, a couple of questions instantly come to mind. One, who authorized such a wonderfully rich yet exceedingly grim adventure? And two, who exactly will show up on opening day?
For the residents of the city of Ember, these are troubled times. The massive generator that keeps the town functioning is failing, and Mayor Cole (Bill Murray
) is at a loss for answers. A bumbling bureaucrat through and through, he'd rather maintain order than find a viable solution. Two young members of the community, Doon Harrow (Harry Treadway
) and Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan
) don't want to give up. He wants his father (Tim Robbins
) and an elderly co-worker Sul (Martin Landau
) to help him get to the damaged energy source. She discovers a strange box which may hold a key to saving the day. Unfortunately, a hidden cabal of city leaders may be trying to undermine any effort to bring Ember back from the brink. Article continues below
If the devil is truly in the details, then City of Ember is the great cinematic Satan himself. In the arena of onscreen imagination, few films can follow it. After creating the previously mentioned motion capture masterwork, animator turned filmmaker Kenan has crafted a dense, Terry Gilliam-esque world of contraptions and contradictions. While based on the bestselling young adult novels of Jeanne Duprau, the relative novice makes the material all his own. Thanks in part to a wonderful script from Caroline Thompson (who's worked similar magic collaborating with obvious inspiration Tim Burton
) and excellent performances from a committed cast, Ember has the potential to be a family classic.
However, it's more likely to become misunderstood and maligned. Similar to Jon Favreau
's unfairly dismissed Zathura, contemporary audiences seem flummoxed by a kid vid that serves up as much acerbic realism as edible eye candy. They don't want impressionable audiences to deal with subjects like death, disaster, and personal disappointment. Kenan and Thompson don't shy away from the more Victorian elements of the narrative. Both of our young heroes have deceased parents, and each one has an occupation (child labor laws be damned) which puts them directly in harm's way. Yet City of Ember uses these threats as character builders -- both literally and figuratively. By the time we reach the action-oriented climax, we believe in our protagonists' newfound courage.
Still, Kenan's obvious art design admiration for such wacked out dystopic visions as Brazil may turns some viewers off, and fans of Duprau's literary franchise might be alarmed at some of the liberties taken. Unlike the Harry Potter
films, which do an excellent job of countermanding danger with a sense of its heroes' infallibility, City of Ember's tone is more fatalistic and final. After all, the pre-credits sequence shows a group of harried scientists discussing the proposed underground sanctuary as some manner of unseen global apocalypse plays out in the background. For all the ending's optimism, we sense the pitfalls within the journey are just beginning.
For Gil Kenan, City of Ember is a benchmark movie. It proves he can move from behind the pen and ink ideas of cartooning to carry a full fledged big screen spectacle. Whether audiences (and those who hired him) will appreciate the visionary bravado stands as the film's biggest commercial quandary.