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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The big-screen adaptation of Jeanne Duprau's children's book "City of Ember" stalls at the intersection of fantasy and science fiction.
While the story line harkens back to "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz," where young people must navigate a weird and perplexing other world, the film is actually set in a dystopian underground that is strictly the realm of sci-fi. And that genre requires that any weird other-world must have a coherent logic and social structure. While director Gil Kenan and writer Caroline Thompson's work leans heavily toward children's fantasy, their film leaves gaping science-fiction holes.
Since the film should please its intended audience, "City of Ember" might enjoy a modest success with young people upon its Friday release via Fox Walden, followed by greater success in home entertainment.
The story begins at the end -- of the world, we are told. But the crucial question of what caused the end of the world is never mentioned. The remaining rulers of society -- all middle-aged, English-speaking Westerners -- send what is left of humanity to an underground city built to last two centuries, after which it will apparently be safe to come up for air. A single box, set to open in 200 years, will explain everything to survivors including how to escape from this City of Ember.
Where to begin with this cockamamie tale? Are we supposed to believe that the old world above ground was permanently erased from everyone's memory? No great-grandmothers' tales of life in the fresh air? Or that survivors have subsisted on mostly can food for 200 years? Or that everyone blindly obeys a succession of mayors, the latest one played by Bill Murray as if he doesn't believe it either?
It falls to two recent high school grads, Doon (Harry Treadaway) and Lina (Saoirse Ronan), to question and challenge the underworld order. Doon realizes the generator powering everything is falling to bits. A Mr. Fix-It like his dad (Tim Robbins), he longs to get his hands on the machinery, but society demands that he perform instead a job assigned to him by lottery.
Lina's ancestor, a previous mayor, died before he could pass on the crucial tell-all box. Now she discovers it and starts to plumb its secrets, including badly crumbling instructions on how to escape Ember.
The city set, constructed in a ship-building hangar in Northern Ireland, resembles a corner of Dickensian London in permanent twilight. Communication devices no longer exist, so messengers like Lina tear around the streets. People's clothes look like they belong to a community theater production of "Rent." Oh, and bugs and rodents have grown very large to ensure a couple of PG-rated scares.
In truth, despite the nervous enthusiasm of Andrew Lockington's insatiable score, there is little here to quicken the pulse. The villains seem almost harmless -- despite the efforts of Toby Jones as the Mayor's henchman and Mackenzie Crook as a petty thief -- while the blackouts, bursting pipes and the escape from Ember a foregone conclusion.
Treadaway and Oscar nominee Ronan ("Atonement") bring plenty of verve and intelligence to their underwritten parts, while their elders overact terribly. And what is Martin Landau doing in the role of a narcoleptic pipeworks boss? He literally sleeps through the movie. Adult moviegoers may envy him.
bottom line: A fantasy film that appeals only to very young people.
opens: October 10 (Fox Walden)
production companies: Playtone, Walden Media.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadaway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Matin Landau, Toby Jones, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Mary Kay Place.
Director: Gil Kenan.
Screenwriter: Caroline Thompson.
Based on the novel by: Jeanne Duprau.
Producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, Steven Shareshian.
Director of photography: Xavier Perez Grobet.
Production designer: Martin Laing.
Music: Andrew Lockington.
Costume designer: Ruth Myers.
Editor: Adam P. Scott.
Rated PG, 95 minutes.