Friday, July 3, 2009

Please return after 200 years

From the bowels of the L.A. Library.

City of Ember (2008)

Another family friendly number from Walden Media whose output (the Naria movies, Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Water Horse among others) has been scatter shot to say the least. I thought the trailers for City of Ember were terrible, with a vibe that was sort of Tim Burton meets Dr Seuss by way of Terry Gilliam. For kids of ALL AGES. But, to quote Gomer Pyle, "Surprise, surprise!" I enjoyed it.

Based on a children's novel that I've never heard of CoE starts with the end of the world, then goes on from there. After some unnamed worldwide catastrophe (Wheel of Armageddon, anyone), scientists build an underground city and place the last remnants of humanity there. They leave explicit instructions on how to get back to the surface with the mayor of the city, hoping the earth will be habitable again after 200 years. But Ess (watch the language - this is a Walden family film remember) happens and the instructions are misplaced.

I liked how they didn't go overboard with the retro-future city and its inhabitants. Shot on a sound stage, which benefits the film's closed universe setting, the production design of the buildings and the interior sets resembled England circa WWII. The same thing with much of the costumes which helps to ground the film in reality.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Lina Mayfleet, one of the city's newest young messengers (they race through the city on foot carrying messages verbally). She is perfect, with just the right amount of pluck to go with her boundless energy. For a "kid's movie" Lina is really saddled with a lot: both her parents are dead and she has to care for not only her 4 year old sister Poppy, but also her senile grandmother. That's a lot for a young teen to handle, but she - the character and the actress - does it all very well. (It's not for nothing that Ronan at age 13 was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 2007 film Atonement.)

Lina teams up with her friend Doon (Harry Treadaway, ten years older than Ronan and too old for the role), to try and find a way out of the city, which is experiencing food and raw material shortages, and worse, the artificial lights keep going out due to the electrical generator falling apart after 200 years of constant use.

Tim Robbins appears in what seems to be an extended cameo, along with Martin Landau channeling the ghost of Doc Brown from Back to the Future, with his long white hair and orange jumpsuit. The real odd bit of casting is Bill Murray as the current Mayor, who sometimes acts like he is in one of those Dr. Seuss adaptations. Also, they give Toby Jones as the mayor's assistant a very Seussical look with his thinning hair combed forward, complete with a poofy mohawk. He looked like an elf who wandered underground from the North Pole.

Saoirse Ronan is the real reason to watch this movie. She give a great performance; you really feel for her character. The effects are fine for the most part, except for a scene with a boat on the rapids - a hilarious compositing nightmare - that brings to mind the original Land of the Lost's opening credits (maybe that's TOO harsh; it may be more like the Richard Chamberlain King Solomon's Mines canoe sequence - choose the lesser of two evils).

If you stumble across this on cable, or heck at the video store, and you have children, then you may find viewing this as pleasant a surprise as I did.

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