City of Ember
Another year, another ill-fated adaptation of a children’s novel. Jeanne DuPrau’s 2003 novel eventually added three sequels, but the abject failure of Gil Kenan’s film put paid to any thoughts of further installments. Which is a shame, as there are many good points in a children’s movie nursing big ideas on the dangers of devotion to the status quo, bureaucracy, entropy and stifled imagination.
Perhaps it’s surprising that post-apocalyptic yarns hadn’t found much of an audience pre-Hunger Games (although a version of The Tripods appears to be in development hell) as it is rich territory, be the target group teen or younger. The titular city was built as a safe haven and instructions were left for the inhabitants by its builders, to be opened in 200 years. But these were lost, and 247 years have passed. The city is falling further and further into disrepair while the majority of the population expresses blind belief that all will be well. Youngsters Lina (Saoirse Ronan, good as ever) and Doon (Harry Treadaway, who went on to play Stephen Morris in Control) discover the instructions and set about finding a way out of the city.
Caroline Thompson’s script is well-paced, and Gil Kenan brings ample energy to his live-action debut. Kenan’s debut was 2006’s Monster House (something of a companion ‘toon to the recent ParaNorman and Frankenweenie), and there is definitely a cartoonist’s eye to the design and compositions; hopefully he will follow in the footsteps of Gilliam and Burton, as he hasn’t worked since Ember nose-dived (Edit: Kenan has just been announced as the director of the Poltergeist remake, a film that needs no remaking but at least he's an distinctive choice). It’s an additional achievement to keep the momentum up when he’s so restricted by his world. Ember is a set-bound environment, all rusty, muted browns; on the page it may work gangbusters, but onscreen it’s an uphill struggle to attract an audience when there is a deficiency of colour, spectacle and action-packed set pieces.
Thompson ensures that we quickly understand the restrictions placed on this world and the social order that has been instituted. The process of discovery of the secrets of Ember is also intriguingly played-out. Less convincing are the mechanics of escaping the city, as established by the builders. These seem not just complex but logistically unlikely; it’s one of the few areas that Kenan’s touch seems less-than-assured.
There is solid work from a dependable supporting cast; from Bill Murray’s mayor (Murray plays it surprisingly straight) to Toby Jones as his assistant and Mackenzie Crook (clearly cast purely for the freak factor). Martin Landau, Tim Robbins and Marianne Jean-Baptiste also appear.
I suspect that, as a child, the most exciting elements would have been the over-sized creatures we see at the periphery of the action; a large moth, the claw of a beetle, an extended rampage involving a well-rendered giant mole. Ironically, this gigantism wasn’t an element of the book(s).
It’s not difficult to see why Ember flopped. Despite its over-designed nature, Kenan’s film is a story-first affair, rather than action sequences or extravagant heroism. It can almost be taken as an indication of quality when a family film fails commercially, as it is quite probable that it hasn’t been wholly divested of originality and distinctiveness. This is certainly true of City of Ember.