It's unusual and therefore refreshing to come across a kid's story that doesn't tell the usual lie that If You Believe Hard Enough, You Will Have Ninja Power. Lots of books and movies have succumbed to this — in recent memory, “Kung Fu Panda” and the Harry Potter stories come to mind, tales of supposedly weak characters who turn out to be remarkable once they learn to believe in themselves.
It's not hard to understand why such a pleasant fiction would appeal to a defenseless child (I gobbled up “The Karate Kid” and “Star Wars” in my youth), but fatherhood has brought a newfound distaste for it, because a pleasant lie is still a lie, and I'm not crazy about lying to my kid.
Nice thing, then, to watch “City of Ember,” the new fantasy film adaptation for the nebulous “middle kid” market (I cannot abide the label “tween”). Here we see characters surviving by a combination of wit, will, help from those who are stronger and even luck. There are no magic spells to guide them, no ancient crane technique if Johnny should sweep the leg. They have only the truth, some chewed up instructions and their meager resources on their side, and they must do what they can.
It's a future dystopian story in which mankind has royally screwed the surface world and so retreats to an underground city to wait for every-thing to become habitable again. The keys to their exit are put under a two-century time lock that gets lost and forgotten, so the city is forced to exist past the point of even remembering the sky. Worse yet, its electrical and plumbing systems are breaking down rapidly, and if some-thing doesn't happen, they'll all be trapped to die in the darkness. As you might have guessed, the keys fall into the hands of an earnest and clever young girl who must piece together the mystery to liberate her people.
But don't worry, it works. It works because there are no magic powers here (unless you want to count a deus ex machina that would make Rube Goldberg proud). It works because the children are called upon not to believe, but to endure. It works because it's charming and moody and sometimes thrilling. It works because the acting never sinks below adequate and because the director is clearly a fan of “Dark City” and because Bill Murray has given up that Garfield crap and gone back to playing the sort of smarm that made him famous.
On the other side, it takes itself a bit too seriously and is maybe a touch too moody. It's certainly too frightening for little ones — I'd think twice about taking anyone much younger than 10 to it. It's got that big Rube Goldberg contraption I mentioned before, which I count as both a weakness (strains credibility) and a strength (pure awesomeness). It also ends with a one-in-a-trillion shot that it explains away by having a narrator say, essentially, “Hey, that was a one-in-a-trillion shot, go figure.” But I was sufficiently charmed and excited up to that point that I bit willingly enough, and your kids will too. Plotholes, schmotholes.
So yes, it's uneven and flawed and not as totally honest as I might have led you to believe, but at least we're spared yet another round of the Remarkable Boy Who Believed Hard Enough and instead see something that at least approximates the trouble of being a child who must over-come in an adult world. I think we do our kids a better service with such stories, and with “City of Ember” you'll likely find yourself carried along with your kids.