One of the more undeserving complete box office failures of last year was a little thing called CITY OF EMBER. And by failure, I mean that it literally crashed & burned… badly. In fact, at a domestic box-office gross of a paltry $7,873,007 (and only about 1 million more than that overseas), it was easily one least successful films of the entire year. But the little picture by Walden Media (the folks who brought us THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA films) was actually a fairly decent effort; not a great picture, but a nice fantasy for young patrons and those with young hearts who grew up watching movies like this one.
Ironically, the movie’s short running time of approximately 95 minutes seemed to be one of its drawbacks. More time should have been spent by director Gil Kenan (whose only other directorial effort was the solid MONSTER HOUSE) in flushing out some of the characters and enriching the overall story. As it was, EMBER had strong possibilities, but it seemed to sail through its plot ideas and some character structure a little too fast and easy.
However, even though this fantasy had a modest budget (by today’s standards) of $55,000,000, it showed plenty of ambition. Its production design team, headed up by Martin Laing (who also worked on the upcoming TERMINATOR SALVATION), did an effective job of creating a unique and textured underground world. And with the likes of Martin Landau, Bill Murray and Tim Robbins, it touted some heavy hitters in the acting talent division. The film even had a mega-star producer in Tom Hanks. The project definitely had its believers, but it just missed building a solid, cohesive whole.
Still, one of the little jewels tucked away in this filmed version of Jeanne Duprau’s popular children’s book series of the same name was young Saoirse Ronan as Lina Mayfleet (who is also expected to be seen in Ridley Scott’s upcoming NOTTINGHAM). She’s a natural, and her belief in the world she inhabited shined through in every scene. In fact, after thinking about it, I’d put her effort on my list of 2008’s underrated genre performances. She was quite charming and actually made her co-star seem snooty and uncharismatic by comparison. Of course, he did some of that on his own.
The bottom line is that I kind of liked CITY OF EMBER, but I didn’t love it. I can’t even say that I really, really liked it. I really, really wanted to, though. It had many of the elements I used to love in its type of movie when I was a kid. It just didn’t have all of the right ones in all of the right places. And it’s just too bad that certain elements couldn’t quite live up to their full potential.
CITY OF EMBER (Walden Media/Twentieth Century Fox, 2008; 95 min.) Directed by Gil Kenan. Screenplay by Caroline Thompson. Based on the book series by Jeanne Duprau. Produced by Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Steve Shareshian and John D. Schofield (executive producer). Cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet. Production Design by Martin Laing. Costumes by Ruth Myers. Special Effects Supervision by Kit West. Music by Andrew Lockington. Edited By Adam P. Scott and Zach Staenberg. Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Martin Landau, Toby Jones, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Mary Kay Place. MPAA Rating: PG for mild peril and some thematic elements.