Sunday, October 12, 2008

CITY OF EMBER - inventive, beautiful and after a slow start, engaging

I can overlook a lot of faults in a film it it merely looks wondrous and CITY OF EMBERS is certainly one of the most wonderfully inventive films I've seen. Based on a children's fantasy novel by Jeane Duprau, the production designer beautifully recreates a self-contained subterranean world in which generations of people have lived after an apocalyptic "disaster" above ground. The look of the City mixes Dickensian London, art-deco design and a general feel of labyrinthine grunginess. The city is powered by a failing generator and a system of crusty old pipes, and the people live in fear that the supplies of tinned goods are running low. Bill Murray's oleaginous mayor tries to keep their spirits up while hoarding canned goods and the fear of the unlit outer regions keeps them from trying to escape.

If the movie starts off slow, it's because Gil Kenan (who directed the brilliant animated kids flick MONSTER HOUSE) takes time to establish how the city works and the mythos of the Builders. I suspect that audience's less keen on simply mopping up the atmosphere of an elaborate set will start to wriggle. But once the plot gets going CITY OF EMBER works well as a standard children's adventure movie. Saoirse Ronan (ATONEMENT) plays a standard-issue cinema Plucky Teenager, who inherits a scrambled version of the exit plans, and pieces them together with another similarly enterprising teen played by Harry Treadaway (BROTHERS OF THE HEAD).

Admittedly, the final scenes play a little like INDIANA JONES and the discovery of above-ground - which is never really in doubt - is a bit of anti-climax after the visual richness of the City. Still, for all that, this movie is a perfectly enjoyable fantasy adventure with better design and acting than most. How many kids films throw in actors of such quality as Martin Landau, Tim Robbins and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, like so much confetti?

CITY OF EMBER is on release in the UK and US. It goes on release in Iceland and Portugal on October 23rd, in Russia on October 30th, in Argentina on November 20th, in Singapore on November 27th, in France and the Netherlands on December 17th, in Belgium on December 24th, in Australia on January 1st and in New Zealand on January 22nd.

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