It’s a nice-looking film that is generally well cast. The direction is occasionally inspired, and the story is engaging. Yet, there’s something just not quite right about Gil Kenan’s City of Ember that keeps it from being the movie it by rights ought to be. I’ve been tussling with what the issue is ever since I saw it. My initial inclination was to pin the whole problem on Bill Murray’s performance as the mayor of Ember; there’s no debate in my mind that he ill advisedly tackles the role as if he were playing Garfield. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is more a symptom of what’s wrong than anything else. Murray seems to have defaulted into Garfield mode because Caroline Thompson’s screenplay offers him little or no characterization.
The lack of interesting characterization isn’t limited to Murray’s role; it’s just that Murray’s approach to filling the script’s void is more grating and obvious than that taken by anyone else. There’s a notable lack of the pleasantly quirky to the supporting characters. At best, they’re given one trait that’s milked for the whole performance (like Martin Landau constantly falling asleep), or they’re given no traits at all (like Toby Jones’ thankless role as Murray’s majordomo). The two youthful leads—Harry Treadaway (Brothers of the Head) and Saoirse Ronan (Atonement)—are fine, but they’re backed up by a bunch of good actors stuck playing pretty colorless stiffs. That’s a significant downside in a movie that is based on the whimsical.
I’ve never read the source books by Jeanne DuPrau. It’s entirely possible that this problem originates with them, but that’s not a sound excuse for the film to have the same problem. This is especially true since the filmmakers don’t seem to have been worried about source fealty. Take the giant mutant star-nosed mole that was added for some lively mayhem. Plus, Caroline Thompson is no stranger to whimsical fantasy, having started her career with the screenplay for Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990), which is filled with eccentric characters who are considerably more than one-note constructs. The same can be said for her work on other Burton projects, like Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005). Thompson is better than this script would indicate.
All this to one side, I have to say that I still liked City of Ember. The story line and the production design were enough to ensure that, even if the characterizations are wanting. The central premise of the city of Ember as an underground self-contained society put into place following the destruction of the world (via some never-explained catastrophic event) is a worthy one in its Dr. Strangelove way. The idea of the city having an expiration date of 200 years is workable, as is the existence of a box containing the information for returning to the surface (lost when the seventh mayor dies before passing the box on to his successor). That all this—and everything about the upper world—has been forgotten and been replaced by a mix of complacency and superstition affords the story some substance that serves the film well.
Also, the production design is marvelous. Ember is a fascinating creation: a kind of steampunk affair that recalls nothing so much as the worlds of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s Delicatessen (1991) and City of Lost Children (1995). The result is actually a surprisingly downbeat, even possibly scary, look for a children’s film. (Depending on your take on such matters, the film’s somewhat adult aura may be a plus or a minus.) The look of the film meshes nicely with the equally grim plot of a world dying because its power source is about to run out, while the people are either in a state of denial or waiting on mythical help from the creators of the city. This last also provides the film a certain timeliness in its thematic implications.
The timeliness of the story makes City of Ember a curious choice for Walden Media, a company known for its conservative, pro-religion mind-set—something that is noticeably absent here. In fact, this is a surprisingly subversive movie that questions both the status quo and faith-based thought at nearly every turn. The government depicted in the city of Ember is wholly corrupt, self-serving and none too bright. The mayor (Murray) barely conceals his contempt for the people he claims to love, even while tossing out various feel-good bromides. The populace at large—the leads notwithstanding—have been taught to question nothing. They blissfully sing songs about the wisdom of “the builders” and the greatness of the city as the whole place crumbles around them and their energy source fails. Thematically, this is pretty heady material. It’s too bad that the movie itself isn’t up to the depth of its themes. Rated PG for mild peril and some thematic elements.