Walden Media knows better.
Special effects are awesome, but families that have come to love such Walden films as "Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe" and "Bridge to Terabithia" have also come to expect that special effects can't replace well developed characters and an involving storyline.
While "City of Ember," Walden's latest film, is far from a disaster it is woefully disappointing because it's eye candy and nothing more.
Mind you, it is rather sumptuous eye candy.
Based upon a 2003 book by Jeanne Duprau, "City of Ember" is an inventive yet surprisingly uninvolving tale of two teens, Doon (Harry Treadaway, "Control") and Lina (Saiorse Ronan, "Atonement"), who reside in an underground metropolis purportedly created out of necessity when Earth above ground has largely gone by the wayside.
When life around them begins to collapse and the powers that be prove to be as corrupt as those that had been above ground, the two teens set out to discover the secrets that will rescue life as they know it. The two driven teens have a worthy adversary in the corrupt Mayor Cole (Bill Murray). Unfortunately, the sparks never fly and director Gil Kenan ("Monster House") seems content to let the special effects take the starring role.
What a mistake.
The special effects in "City of Ember" are quite awesome, and the city itself is a mesmerizing creation. Yet, for all of the hypnotic visuals, "City of Ember" has a constant feeling of familiarity.
"Bridge to Terabithia?" You'll think of it here.
"The Chronicles of Narnia?" Yep.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth?" This film would have been even more visually arresting in 3-D.
Heck, there's even a rather obvious touch of Indiana Jones present here.
Therein lies the problem. Without an intriguing story or interesting characters, "City of Ember" isn't much more than a visually familiar feast for the eyes.
The two teens do a fine job, though it's hard not to think about how wonderful Ronan was in "Atonement" and how little she's given to do here.
Murray? He could do this role in his sleep...He does fine here, but again, it's mighty familiar.
Even Tim Robbins, as Doon's dad, seems to be taking a page out of his "Zathura" playbook.
The other problem with "City of Ember" lies in the film's 94-minute running time. Too much? Not quite. Too little? No, not really. The problem is that "City of Ember" FEELS edited. Several of the film's plot devices feel incomplete, and the film has a consistent feeling of "What else is there?" as scenes unfold.
Produced by Tom Hanks, it's going to be interesting to see the box-office impact of "City of Ember," a far darker film than is usually given the family film label. In a world where chatting chihuahuas can run away with the box-office crown, will financially pinched families really dole out the bucks for a dark film that they will likely have to explain to the young ones?
Still, I can't quite talk myself into completely trashing "City of Ember," despite my overall disappointment in the finished product. Fans of Duprau's novel and those who've resonated with other Walden family films are likely to find much to like here and, while I tend to think they'll consider it one of their lesser films, it should be a generally satisfying experience. Kenan remains largely faithful to Duprau's vision, and at the very least "City of Ember" never condescends to its younger target audience.
Modestly disappointing, "City of Ember" is still a far better film than the aforementioned chihuahuas and worth a view. With its visuals taking center stage, "City of Ember" is a film best seen on the big screen as most televisions simply won't catch the special effects and widescreen lensing in quite the same way.
by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic