This film is strictly for kids. Not pimply teenagers though, but children whose parents will take comfort in knowing that this film is thoroughly family friendly fare, with nary a swear word, tame action sequences, no embarrassing physical romance they got to cook up an explanation for, and an inspiring theme that has to do with hope and working hard to achieve one's goals.
Based on the book by Jeanne Duprau, one can find plenty of parallels with the setting of the story, where a group of inhabitants get to live in an artificial colony because of the sins of the fathers (well, the human predecessors who find that their rape and plunder of the Earth have finally taken its toil), and find themselves living underground in an aptly dark world, lit by plenty of light bulbs powered by an aging generator. Stories like these are staple in Japanese manga/anime, and the recent one that I've watched was Freedom, but that involved the moon. Or think The Matrix even, but for kids and minus the kung-fu inspired fight scenes.
So the story goes that Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, the kid from Atonement) has in her family's possession, an important piece of instruction leading to the salvation and exit of everyone from the city of Ember, given that it's been hundreds of years already and the infrastructure is crumbling. But that is if she knows that she has that information in the first place, and what exactly to do with it. So it's up to her and best friend Doon Harrow (Hary Treadaway) to figure things out, unravel the conspiracy involving their mayor Cole (Bill Murray, who's seriously in some need to snap out of sleepwalking in this role), and of course, make their way toward the clear blue skies of the surface.
But in the meantime, you can't help but to feel a little short-changed with how the story develops, or there lackof. Here's a world that's artificially built both in the story, and as well as for the film, and little time is devoted to delving into a more detailed exploration of this strange new world where people live in an environment devoid of the sun. They grow their food in greenhouses, and have in their societal system, a structure of deciding what their career path for life will be from a young age. Modern technology like the cellphone is gone, and replacing it is the good old human messenger system relying on fleet of foot, and accuracy of transmission, all for 20 coins per message.
All you get however are just very wafer thin highlights of this strange world, complete with strange creatures or their body parts, that I suspect if not for a relatively modest budget we'll see more of. At times too you do feel that scenes don't really gel and flow seamlessly from point to point, most likely getting trimmed to achieve a relatively palatable run time of just over 90 minutes. And you can tell from the modest budget too that the special effects did suffer a little in having them presented in raw terms in a major sequence involving a boat gushing down a mighty cavern river.
While there's nothing much to shout about on the performances of the two leads, the film tried to up its star factor having minute supporting roles for Tim Robbins, as well as Martin Landau, an aged pipeworks technician, who will undoubtedly get the most laughs out of his penchant to strictly stick to his job, and nothing more or less. I suppose everyone can identify with this aspect in their own working life from time to time, except perhaps for the fact that his Sul takes pride in thoroughly doing a fine job if it's something under his scope.
City of Ember is a very straight forward film with few bells and whistles to complicate matters. Coming from Walden Media, it's an extremely safe film to bring the whole family to, and kids will undoubtedly get a kick out of this action-adventure aimed squarely at them in the name of wholesome entertainment, and it succeeds on this aspect.