MOVIE REVIEW- Box ticket: No classic, but <i>Ember</i> entertains

a still from this week's film The old story about rebels escaping from an oppressive underground civilization gets a visually interesting, family-friendly retelling in City of Ember.

Based on the novel by Jeanne Duprau, the movie squanders its original elements early, before reverting to formulaic sneaking and snooping and running. There's even a monster who has no logical reason for being there but serves a dramatic purpose (and may be an homage to director Gil Kenan's previous film, Monster House).

The backstory is more interesting than what happens as it moves forward, though even that leaves questions for inquiring minds. A narrator explains how, "on the day the world ended," certain information was placed in a small metal box which was set to open in 200 years. It was sent to a specially built underground city with the remains of humanity, in the hope that the surface of the planet could be reinhabited in the future.

Wouldn't the first generation in that city, named Ember, be aware of where they'd come from and pass that information on to their descendants? you ask. Write your own story, troublemaker!

The box was passed on from one Mayor of Ember to another, until it got tucked away and forgotten with 47 years to go; and when it opened automatically, no one noticed. The current Mayor (Bill Murray, with his usual brand of sardonic seriousness) is eating from a secret food stash while the people are going hungry, and the city, which has a Dickensian look anyway, is falling into serious disrepair. The generator that powers everything has been suffering longer and more frequent blackouts. The Mayor, typically, deals with the crisis by appointing a task force to investigate, and opiates the masses with the annual Great Day of Singing.

It's obvious that the younger generation will have to fix the mess they've inherited, and two of them quickly emerge as the central characters. Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway, whose chin has a dimple John Travolta's entire head could get lost in) is the son of eccentric Loris (Tim Robbins), who is forever inventing gizmos and doohickeys and whatzits, and telling his son things like, "Notice what no one else notices, and you'll know what no one else knows."

Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) lives with her Granny (Liz Smith) and little sister Poppy (Amy and Catherine Quinn). The latter has such a case of ADD she shouldn't be taken along on the Big Adventure that occupies most of the movie's second half; but of course she is. One of Lina's ancestors was the seventh mayor of Ember, so the box– remember the box?– is in her closet.

With Lina following clues in the box, and Doon making other discoveries around town, they join forces to seek a way out of Ember before the infrastructure totally collapses. What they find is more like a model for a theme park ride than a well thought out escape route, but you take what you can get.

The lead actors have been more impressive before, Ronan in her Oscar-nominated role in Atonement and Treadaway with his twin brother Luke in Brothers of the Head (which is definitely worth renting but not for kids); but they fill the bill as surrogates for young viewers. The grown-up cast includes Martin Landau, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Toby Jones, and Mary Kay Place.

The screenplay is by Caroline Thompson, who's written most of the best family films of the last 20 years, including several of Tim Burton's. This isn't her best work, but it's satisfactory for director Kenan to build a visual treat around.

City of Ember isn't a classic, but it's a better-than-average entertainment for families to enjoy together.