"These are troubled and trying times," the folksily sinister Mayor Cole (Bill Murray) tells the residents of Ember. Ember, an underground city built to survive what one can only assume was a nuclear holocaust, was intended to keep its residents safe for 200 years—but that time has long since passed. The power that lights the city frequently flickers and blacks out; rotting pipes sprout constant leaks; and, every once in a while, giant, ravenous mutant moles rumble out of the surrounding darkness, devouring whoever's in their path. It's pretty easy to see why two of Ember's younger citizens, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), start to wonder if there's a way out of their city, even as Ember's grownups (played by the likes of Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, and Martin Landau) are content to accept the status quo.
Troubled and trying times, indeed: At a moment when the world's financial and cultural systems seem precariously close to apocalypse, it feels appropriate that two of the best films so far this year, Wall-E and City of Ember, are post-apocalyptic adventure flicks. (And ones that are rated G and PG, respectively—even kids can get in on the fun that the end of the world offers!) But City of Ember, based on the young adult novel by Jeanne DuPrau, and directed by Monster House's Gil Kenan, is less concerned with commentary—its intention is to provide a smart, entertaining film, in which case it totally succeeds.
Like The City of Lost Children combined with the immaculately imagined videogame BioShock, the atmospheric, retro-futuristic designs of City of Ember look fantastic, and the whole thing has the charm and appeal of old-school '80s kids' movies like The Goonies. Say, speaking of The Goonies: Remember when studios that weren't named Pixar actually gave two shits about kids' movies, and didn't just eagerly greenlight stuff like Beverly Hills Chihuahua? The rousing, impressive City of Ember feels like it came from back then, when just because a movie was rated PG didn't mean it'd automatically cause a gag reflex in anyone over the age of four.