Under the earth’s surface for so long they have forgotten how and why they got there and even that there is another place to be, the citizens of the City of Ember have just about lost their sense of hope, of wonder, of imagination, and adventure. On “assignment day” kids pick their careers out of a hat. The idea of special interest, curiosity, or competence never comes up. And neither does the idea of creating or improving anything. All of the jobs that occupy the time of the citizens of Ember are about maintenance. All of the clothes, all of the infrastructure, everything is made from broken pieces of other things. Decay and breakdown pervade everything. Learning, reading, and creating, are ideas that have just about disappeared.
There is a genial but disengaged mayor (Bill Murray). Everyone seems to accept everything the way it is except for two kids, Lena (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her dotty grandmother and little sister, and Doon (Harry Treadaway). Together, they race to solve the mystery of how their city was created before it becomes uninhabitable.
An almost Junior Great Books version of Brazil, this is a gorgeously imagined and visually sumptuous but still bleak and dystopic vision. In most stories featuring young lead characters, at some point they consult with a wise older person or get help from an adult. But here all of the other characters, the adults and even Lena’s little sister all seem oddly passive and disconnected and the kids are on their own. It does not have the brightness and energy of many films for this age group, and that may take some getting used to for kids used to a lot of flash.
But like a good book, it rewards patience and thoughtful attention. As with Wallâˆ™E, some audience members will complain that this film is a one-sided and thinly-veiled allegory about current controversies or that it promotes rebellion. But that a very superficial mis-reading of the movie’s message, which is about the much more important and much more fundamental importance of independent thinking and not being satisfied with the status quo. In a time where both candidates for President are competing to persuade voters which will be the most effective in bringing change, it is an important reminder that we can all find ways to make things better.