Dir: Gil Kenan. US. 2008. 94mins.

Harry Potter fans still smarting from the postponed release of the latest instalment of their favourite franchise might take a crumb of solace from City Of Ember. The first live-action feature from Monster House director Gil Kenan is a fast-paced adaptation of the bestselling fantasy adventure by Jeanne DuPrau. Visually accomplished but dramatically mundane, the film offers enough thrills and spills to attract the same family audience that was drawn to Journey To The Center Of The Earth or Arthur And The Invisibles. Positioned as a school holiday attraction, City Of Ember may receive a muted critical response but should still deliver solid mid-range box-office around the world.

Accomplished production design by Martin Laing and imaginative cinematography from Xavier Perez Grobet give the film a look and texture reminiscent of Jeunet and Caro’s work. A decaying futuristic city is depicted in gloomy visuals evoking the Victorian London of Dickens. The screen is filled with Heath Robinson-style mechanical contraptions, bizarre creatures, oppressive buildings, rusted metal and crumbling stone. Unfortunately, the story isn’t nearly as inspired and rushes along at such a pace that there is little time for the unexpected or the touches of humour that might have lifted it out of the ordinary.

Built to last for two hundred years, the City Of Ember was designed as a sanctuary for humankind after an unspecified calamity had threatened the end of civilisation as we know it. Now the two hundred years have past, the city’s generator is failing and there are increasingly lengthy black-outs. The city’s mayor (Murray) blithely promises that all is well. Youngster Lina (Ronan) and her classmate Doon (Treadaway) are convinced they must take action and believe there is something beyond the eternal darkness that is said to exist outside Ember. Doon goes to work at the generator, befriending oldtimer Sol (Landau) whilst Lina discovers an old metal box and a papers hinting at an answer to what lies beyond Ember. Solving the clues sets them on a race against time to restore hope to the city.

City Of Ember unfolds with a real sense of pace and purpose. Clues are no sooner discovered than they are solved. It’s like a theme park ride piling on the jeopardy as we race towards a happy ending. The storytelling is so neat and tidy that it risks feeling routine although the target audience of youngsters may be happily swept along by the chases, monsters and slightly sub-standard special-effects.

Ronan makes a keen, resourceful heroine and Treadaway is a steadfast ally. It is a measure of how trim and focused the narrative is that there is no time for any hint of soppy romance between them to impede the forward momentum. Murray is characteristically droll as the Wizard Of Oz-like mayor and there are reliable supporting performances from old pros like Landau, Toby Jones and Liz Smith. Their presence is a further welcome distraction from the predictability of an over-familiar storyline.

Production companies
Walden Media

International sales
Summit Entertainment
(1) 310 309 8400

Gary Goetzman
Tom Hanks
Steve Shareshian

Executive producer

John D Schofield

Caroline Thompson
Based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau

Xavier Perez Grobet

Production design
Martin Laing

Adam P Scott

Andrew Lockington

Main cast
Saoirse Ronan
Harry Treadaway
Bill Murray
Tim Robbins
Toby Jones
Martin Landau
Marianne Jean-Baptiste