October 16, 2008

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City of Ember (PG)
As an underground city begins to crumble, two kids look for clues to the way out in City of Ember, a fairly exciting adventure for kids old enough to deal with giant moles and a lot of talking.

Doon Harrow (Harry Treadway) is an inquisitive young man who, like the rest of the (my guesstimate) 12- to 14-year-olds in the City of Ember, is eager to find out what lifelong position he’ll be given on Assignment Day. He’s hoping for something that allows him to work on the generator, because Ember, an underground city lit by hundreds of lights hanging from a dark ceiling, seems to be inching closer to eternal darkness. The generator has been going out more often and for longer stretches of time. What the residents of Ember, including its feckless Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), don’t know is that Ember was only meant to last 200 years. Its creation was a reaction to some above-ground calamity, and the city’s founding scientists — now called, with religious reverence, the Builders by the Emberians — left instructions to be handed down from mayor to mayor about how to leave the city when the time was up. Except the box got lost, and now Cole is suggesting the formation of a task force to study the blackouts while he secretly plans for his own (and no one else’s) survival.

As it happens, the lost box is in the closet of Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her grandmother, whose distant ancestor was one of the city’s mayors. She finds the box and together with Doon’s intuition and his father Loris’s crazy inventions they rush to find out what’s beyond the light of Ember before the generator conks for good.

Ronan, who made quite the splash last year in Atonement, is the perfect kind of plucky heroine for a kid adventure. She’s believably smart and capable without being a smarty-pants. Likewise, Treadway seems like a genuine young-teen/old-kid boy who has a desire to fix stuff and is just this side of open like-iness for Ronan. They are explorers in the what-happens-next excitement vein of a fourth- or fifth-grade chapter-book mystery and have that kind of early-series Harry Potter gang chemistry but without all the magic and precociousness.

City of Ember even seems to give its excitement a little allegorical edge about leaders who do nothing while the environment falls apart and are secretly preparing to save only themselves. (Or maybe that’s just a bit of fun plot twist and character development and the political season is bleeding into all corners of my brain.)

Though a bit scary for the youngest moviegoers (and containing one scene of some truly unfortunate, jarringly clumsy CGI), City of Ember is a solid tale for adventure-loving elementary-schoolers. B

Rated PG for mild peril and some thematic elements. Directed by Gil Kenan and written by Caroline Thompson (from a book by Jeanne Duprau), City of Ember is an hour and 39 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Fox Walden.