City of Ember - Dark, but not too dark for youth.

This latest production by Walden Media is a memorable vision, but disappointing at times, though it remains true to the popular book by Jeanne DuPrau.

The story begins with a prologue that portrays the builders of the underground City of Ember and how they prepared for the future deliverance of it's citizens. We're let in on a secret that our two heroes have to stumble upon and sort out, but left to wonder why this refuge was set up in the first place. Lina and Doon are friends, and romantic overtones do not complicate their relationship. In the book, each is 12, but here they are about 14 and 16. We later learn that their heritage means for them to be together. Doon is committed to finding out the reason the generator is failing, and Lina observes hints that there is an outside world before she discovers the box with the secret.

In spite of the ineffective and dishonest mayor, played by Bill Murray, this society is generally positive and harmonious. Doon's mother is not around and Lina has lost both her parents and is left to care for her odd little sister and her odd and forgetful grandmother. After fingering the mayor for stealing from the dwindling food supply, they become outlaws, but manage to figure out the message in the box. They find their way out with Lina's little sister to discover a world that looks clean and healthy, though deserted.

The sets are dark and magnificent and create a claustrophobic and mildly creepy feel. The mayor is, in line with the book, as much a clown as a bad guy, and at times it was a bit hard to tell if Bill Murray is aiming for humor. Our leads are outstanding and convincing in their roles, and other stars include Tim Robbins as Doon's constricted, mad scientist father. Several familiar character actors brighten the story as well. This is a soft PG movie with the notable exception of a very scary giant mole (not in the book) that chases the kids and becomes part of the mayor's overly severe comeuppance. Also, a tender scene shows Lina as she finds her grandmother passed away and looking very realistically dead.

Plot gaps--like why is the mole so big?-- seemed more noticeable than I had expected with the very positive reviews this movie had received, and the dialogue is clumsy at times. Though everyone seems to get along, relationships with others in the community are not well-developed so it doesn't seem surprising when the heroes escape without much care for those left behind, even though the apparatus they had discovered was meant to free the whole community. This gets superficially sorted out at the end with hints that a sequel is on the way.

The dark world this film creates might bother younger or more sensitive children and the scenes with the mole are brief but impressive. It's visual power reminded me of the movie Brazil and the convincing world it created, but there is plenty of hope and goodness here. There is no coarse language or sexual innuendo. Morals to consider include the value of paying attention to problems that others may be trying to ignore, and making the most of one's strengths when the system makes it hard to do so. Probably worth seeing on the big screen, but don't expect greatness.

Norman Hale, M.D.
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