DVD Review: City of Ember (2008)

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Read the Story of Ember

One of the most overlooked and underrated family films from 2008, lost in a sea of animated fare, the absence of a strong marketing push, and Twilight anticipation-- director Gil Kenan's City of Ember, produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman (those super producers responsible for the Golden Globe and multiple award-winning John Adams, Band of Brothers, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and more) is releasing onto DVD on Tuesday, January 20.

Although unfortunately, as of now, there have been no announced plans for any sequels to continue Jeanne DuPrau's book series nor a Blu-ray release (which I actually expressed a desire for in my original review as a then-owner of only a DVD player), nonetheless the stunning DVD transfer will be available as a "flipper disc," giving audiences the opportunity to watch it in its original 16x9 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio or the pan and scan full-screen option to fit square television screens.

Despite a lack of any special features, it's a strong disc that's worthy of a much greater audience and a film of unparalleled quality, which was apparent to me in my initial review that I'll reprint below in the hopes you'll track Ember down:

About midway through director Gil Kenan's visually stunning, cinematic roller-coaster City of Ember, I grabbed a pen and scribbled the words "Tim Burton-like" in the dark. Having arrived at the screening with zero knowledge of the film, nor the series of books including the bestselling titular novel The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau upon which it was based, I braced myself for the unexpected.

Try as I might, I've never been overly enthusiastic about science fiction or fantasy works and when I heard somebody compare the films to having a Wizard of Oz styled feel, I nearly turned around and headed back to my car. Yet, much to my pleasant surprise, after a gripping and ingenious prologue, I quickly found myself absolutely enraptured in the world of Ember.

While personally I didn't feel there was anything Wizard of Oz-like about it-- except perhaps that it has an old-fashioned character driven approach to-- the Tim Burton quality never strayed too far from my mind. When I returned home to play detective, soon I realized upon further research, that Ember's script had been penned by Burton's talented screenwriter Caroline Thompson, who'd written Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and others for the director over the years.

Yet, it didn't feel derivative in the least but rather more like it existed within the spirit of those films-- as a great yarn you'd like to share with children. Moreover, it felt like something-- despite its overwhelmingly amazing special effects-- that made it seem like a great myth which had been handed down from one generation to the next.

Originally written in the '80s, the roots for DuPrau's bestselling young adult books actually evolved decades earlier in the era of the Cold War. Having grown up in the '50s, DuPrau noted in the Fox Walden press release that she had "strong memories of the shadow and fear of nuclear war. People everywhere were talking about what could happen. They were building bomb shelters. It made a huge impression on me." That impression resulted in the idea of the fictional creation of an entire underground city.

Hoping to spare individuals from the inevitable pain and suffering of civilization, planners in DuPrau's novel crafted the city of Ember in order to protect the human race "for the good of all mankind." Initially, it was developed with the prospect that it could sustain an entire city of people for two hundred years thanks to a powerful generator.

To this end, a high tech, countdown timer equipped box with an all-important exit strategy was passed down from one mayor to the next. However, when one mayor passed away before it found its way safely into the hands of the next generation-- oblivious to everyone-- the timer went off and the city began to crumble.

With increasing blackouts and a food shortage as Ember continues way past its expiration date, the only hope for its future lie in the intellectual curiosity, courage and daring of two teenagers-- Doon (Harry Treadway), the son of an inventor (Tim Robbins) and the orphaned Lina Mayfleet (Atonement Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan), a descendant of one of the earliest mayors who unknowingly possesses the builders' box.

With allusions regarding the selfishness and deceit of government and misuse of political power, issues of religion (as some blindly put their faith into "the builders" instead of actively pursuing a way out), City of Ember is a rare family film. Intelligent and exceptionally produced--the city is not just a setting or a character but a continual source of awe-- Ember somehow manages to move effortlessly from impressive storytelling to special effects that make us feel as though we are along for the ride, escaping alongside Doon, Lina and her young sister Poppy.

While it sets itself up perfectly for a sequel-- or at its best-- encourages audience members to pick up the other books, producer Tom Hanks, Monster House director Gil Kenan, screenwriter Thompson, and its excellent cast including Bill Murray, Martin Landou, Mary-Kay Place and Marianne Jean-Baptiste have managed to set a new high bar of extraordinary quality for intelligent, entertaining, imaginative and engrossing children's films.

However, due to lack of a big marketing push and the unfortunate tragedy of dwindling viewer attention spans regarding a majority of those would probably prefer to play City of Ember the video game rather than watch the film, I fear it may be one of 2008's biggest sleepers.

Although, this being said, if audiences can keep their ADD in check for the first eighty minutes, they'll be wonderfully rewarded by the film's thrilling conclusion that not only surpasses any video game they may have in their collection but seems as though it was made entirely to encourage prospective buyers to pick up a Blu-ray player to get the full effect when it arrives on DVD shelves, where I expect it will do the most business.

Although, this being said, I hope audiences will prove me wrong. So in the spirit of this request-- please take your kids and remind Hollywood of the type of fare we want made for our children, thus encouraging them to think outside the box before they make yet another film about a talking animal or release another movie with a number after it.

Discover the Books of Ember