City of Ember belongs to one of the best and most enduring genres of children's films, in which smart kids stand up against the ignorant and aloof adult world and have a big adventure in the process. It also throws in a fantastical city, replete with whiz-bang inventions and secret societies. It's a mystery, then, that all the happy elements only add up to a big mush, a dull adventure and a contrived fantasy. Saiorsie Ronan is a fantastic heroine, but the story and the rest of the cast can't keep up with her lively pace.
Turns out the world ended 200 years ago, and some wise elders decided to pack away part of society in Ember, a city built entirely underground and powered by the river (nice use of alternative power!) that flows through it. They've only provided the city with enough provisions to last for 200 years, though, after which the humans left there will have to break out and fend for themselves. Unfortunately their foolproof method of letting their descendants know this-- a box with a message in it-- goes astray, and year 241 underground arrives complete with a crumbling infrastructure that no one knows how to fix.
Lina Mayfleet (Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Louis Treadaway) are 12-year-olds recently given their job assignments, Communist-style, that they will keep for the rest of their lives. Doon goes to work in the pipeworks hoping to gain access to the city's generator, which has been faltering and plunging the city into blackouts; Doon wants to fix the generator before it goes dark for good. Lina, as a messenger, runs across the city and gains access to the Mayor (Bill Murray), who seems uninterested in the looming catastrophe of total darkness. When Lina discovers the box with all the instructions for the future in it in her grandmother's closet, she starts to piece together an idea for how to escape Ember and find the real world. Turns out Lina's dead parents and Doon's dad (Tim Robbins) attempted a similar stunt years earlier that took Lina's dad's life.
Plot points and character development whoosh by as Doon and Lina hunt for escape routes, including Lina's occasional run-ins with the city's lazy government and a terrifying encounter with a giant octopus-mole hybrid. Fascinating side characters float in and out, including Doon's boss in the pipeworks and a slimy shopkeeper, but director Gil Kenan seems hellbent on just driving the narrative forward. The movie clocks in at an acceptably short time for a kid's movie, but so much gets lost or glossed over along the way.
Ember itself is fascinating, an intricately detailed set that, like Diagon Alley or the Star Wars cantina, you'd like to take a few hours to wander around in. But so many questions about the city are left unanswered. Where did all these awful mutant animals come from? Why is it forbidden to venture to the outskirts of the city, and who is the guy who suddenly shows up there? Though the city is reportedly suffering a food shortage and a huge lack of funds, the people never seem all the concerned; are they brainwashed, or are they actually just that stupid? You get the feeling that Jeanne Duprau's book got into this stuff, while the movie never seems to have the time.
Murray's role winds up going nowhere, partly thanks to his sleepwalking performance and partly due to the rushed script. Robbins, too, doesn't get a fair shake, playing a father who is simultaneously encouraging and doubtful of his son's goals. Treadaway is the only one who gets a chance to equal Ronan, but both of them wind up as plot instigators more than anything else. Adventure kid's movies all end the same way, but the good ones have some spark that makes them worth following through until the end. Almost entirely humorless and derivative, despite its wonderfully inventive set, City of Ember is little more than a retread of the best movies the 80s had to offer. Yes, it's a shame no one is making movies like Goonies anymore, but this pale imitation is just as disappointing.