After Fox and Walden Media dropped the ball in grand fashion with their "Dark is Rising" adaptation, The Seeker, I was more than timid to step into a book-to-screen rendition of Jeanne DePrau's book, City of Ember. More information slowly tricked in, highlighted Tim Robbins and Bill Murray's involvement, along with a few shots of the stunning set and costume design that Monster House director Gil Kenan and crew had slaved away on. Timidity turned into a little spark of excitement, as it appeared to carry a much more stable head on it shoulders. And wouldn't you know it, I loved City of Ember's atmosphere, adventurous rhythm, and the Saoirse Ronan-fueled cast -- but it's all in spite of its two marquee veterans, not because of them.
Kenan's adaptation paints a picture of Ember, a brightly-lit city locked away from an assumedly post-apocalyptic world, as it grows close to the end of a 200-year countdown. Constructed as a protective measure for its citizens, a series of "builders" assembled Ember into a beautiful, village-sized makeshift shelter deep underneath the ground with an all-pervading mayor, currently Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), that randomly assigns jobs to up-and-coming youths. As the population's food supply depletes and their power generator drapes the city in darkness periodically, it's clear that Ember's on its way to collapse. However, the citizens don't know that they're approaching the end of this all-important countdown, as the box -- along with its secret -- was misplaced during one of the transitions in mayoral power. A hungered, powerless Ember stays afloat because of its weak drive to sustain life and maintain this service-driven status quo, while losing their internal energy at the same rate as the city's rapidly-diminishing light source.
Gaining control and re-instilling faith in one's life become the central themes at City of Ember's core, elements that two teenagers -- Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) and Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement) -- grasp with all their passionate might as they heed an unsung call to save their city from darkness. From the start, their characters become the only autonomous bodies running around Ember; with Lina first receiving the post of "Pipe Worker" and Doon relegated to an unimportant "Messenger" job, their swap at the start of the picture guides them both down a path of boldness and self-proclamation. Emphasizing these two as trailblazers works extremely well for the film's tone, a film primarily about uncontrolled, uninformed claustrophobia. Ember might've crumbled under less charismatic performances, but Treadaway and Academy Award-nominated Ronan barely break a sweat in their independently-minded roles. They're both great, offering two pint-sized heroes for us to back throughout the story.
It's in the roles of keynote authority figures where City of Ember's equilibrium gets thrown out of whack. I didn't think I'd ever say this about Bill Murray, but it proves that there's a first time for everything: he's completely wrong for the role as Mayor of Ember. As a long-running fan of his -- and as someone disappointed that he didn't claim gold on Oscar night for his fantastic performance in Lost in Translation -- it's a hard pill to swallow when he falls flat in the manner that he does here. As soon as Murray appears anywhere throughout the film, whether we're talking about his grand speech to the citizens of Ember or one of the many times he speaks to Lina in his office, City of Ember's pace halts. Instantly, and not in a captivating way. He stumbles all over the place in finding the right rhythm as a miserly weasel with a pot belly and a false attitude, ultimately resulting in a highly dissatisfying villain. Tim Robbins fares a bit better, but not by much; he essentially reincarnates a toned-down shadow of his War of the Worlds hermit character, which we all know how well that played out for Spielberg's reimagining.
Thankfully, Lina and Doon's desperate hunt involves limited face-to-face contact with them (involving much more interaction with solid character turns from The Painted Veil's Toby Jones and screen legend Martin Landau), all the while fighting to not allow a skipped beat in their blitzed scramble across Ember's map. As the gears start to click into place and the sleuthing duo begins to connect the dots within its semi-foreseeable storyline, City of Ember allows the current of energy generated within the first two acts to sweep it along for a thought-provoking ride towards its conclusion. Discovering ominous mechanical passageways and usages for intricately-designed relics creates a care-free, mildly involving trek through puzzle-solving that a blast to witness -- boats, maps, bizarre drilling antiquities, the works. It's a watch-'em-do-it scenario instead of a help-'em-do-it, though it still encourages a message of perseverance by revealing more of Ember's lush architectural secrets through each puzzle they solve.
City of Ember's a gorgeous and enthralling voyage from start to finish, one that transforms simple matters like following behind human-telephone Lina as she darts through dark corners, hallways, and dusty alleys of the city into a sumptuous experience. Absorbing the amber-drenched contours of Ember's low-riding skyline -- reminiscent of dystopian environments in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's City of Lost Children -- becomes part of the journey, as the motion trailing behinf the two central characters breathes life into the film with impressive camerawork and slickly-streamlined editing made to keep idle eyes locked onto its constant activity. With this extra polish and grace, it easily outclasses both its Bridge to Terabithia and The Seeker counterparts in both visual and thematic style, stressing it as a zealous family-friendly quest that rivals National Treasure in quality. At times it sinks into a comfort level which covets style over substance, but it'd be a waste not to indulge in an environment as richly realized and ardent as Ember.
Video and Audio:
Considering that a City of Ember Blu-ray release isn't looming anywhere in the near future -- and considering the fact that it's a highly visual film -- you'd think that Fox might want to roll out the big guns and show exactly what their standard-definition release of the film can do. But, instead, we've got a Screener Copy, one with an unfinished visual encoding. Pixelated, muddy, edge enhancement and aliasing always taint these discs, but at least they show that the film should be presented in its 2.35:1 image with 16x9 enhancement. However, the fact that Ember's beautiful depth of field rendering and color palette force through is a real testament to the cinematography and production design.
Though this is potentially an unfinalized audio transfer as well, the English Dolby 5.1 track worked the rear channels and lower-frequency depths to ample degrees. At times, all the hustling about filled the room in grand effect, boasting what could be a phenomenal standard-definition audio track. We'll have to wait and see if that holds true for the retail release, but those curious can be assured that it should have English, French, and Spanish language tracks and subtitle options.
City of Ember didn't do well at the box office, as it barely reclaimed a tenth of its production budget domestically amid mixed critical opinions. In regards to that, it appears as if Fox didn't want to fritter away any more resources -- as this release comes completely bare-boned, without even a trailer for City of Ember itself. Considering the extensive production design and adaptation discussion that certainly accompanies this release, it's a shame to not see anything included.
City of Ember's a lot of fun, primarily highlighted by its enveloping production values and stellar youthful performances from Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway. Though the Murray/Robbins star power could've planted rears in theater seats with more electric performances, the sheer energy present at the center of Ember's gracefully kinetic connect-the-dots mystery offers more than enough of an involvement factor. Fox's barren DVD comes with a timid Recommendation, however, as the complete lack of special features will disappoint those interested into digging further into the city's beautiful environment.