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Keep driving past ‘City of Ember’

All “City of Ember” offers are uninteresting characters in a grimy and bleak world  and instead of suspense or even empathy, there’s just noise and ugliness.

It’s turning out to be quite the year for post-apocalyptic kids’ movies — this summer we had “Wall-E,” with its polluted Earth abandoned by an increasingly flabby human race, and now comes “City of Ember,” about a pocket of civilization that’s been living underground for 200 years after an unspecified catastrophe (or what Peter Greenaway in “The Falls” would call a “Violent Unknown Event”).

Would that this new movie had a tenth of the charm or the smarts of the Disney/Pixar cartoon. All “City of Ember” offers are uninteresting characters in a grimy and bleak world — the production design all but screams “It’s a set!” — and instead of suspense or even empathy, there’s just noise and ugliness.

The film begins with scientists loading up a box with instructions on how to leave the underground city and return to the surface world two centuries hence. The box is supposed to be passed down from mayor to mayor, but it winds up buried in a closet until it’s discovered by Lina (Saoirse Ronan). Perfect timing, too, because Lina and her best friend Doon (Harry Treadaway) have noticed that Ember is falling apart, with more frequent blackouts due to the city’s failing generator.

They can’t rely on the authorities for help, since the corrupt Mayor (Bill Murray) has already built a bunker that will house him while Ember crumbles around him. (He’s aided in this by his sniveling toady of an advisor, played by Toby Jones; through sheer coincidence, Jones will pop up later this month as Karl Rove in Oliver Stone’s “W.”) Murray’s useless leader gets one moment that’s become very topical of late — his idea for dealing with the generator situation involves putting together a commission — but he’s neither funny nor particularly villainous.

Screenwriter Caroline Thompson — who, until now, has had a pretty good run as a writer of kid’s films, with “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Secret Garden” as just two of her many credits — relies on some lazy devices in her adaptation of Jeanne Duprau’s novel. Doon’s father (Tim Robbins) gives his son a seemingly useless doohickey at the beginning of the movie that of course becomes indispensable toward the end, and there’s also a hideous mole creature that, while useful as a deus ex machina, will completely freak out younger children.

“City of Ember” is awful to look at — no one expects a crumbling underground city to be pretty, per se, but rather than strive for the fascinating decay of “Brazil” or “The Road Warrior,” the production design brings to mind the ill-fated “Super Mario Bros.” movie. Heck, even the videogame “Bioshock” does a better job of showing a rotted-out city of the future.

With the exception of the talented young Ronan, the cast seems mostly adrift here. And if you remove the spectacularly vapid Treadaway from the equation, there’s an amazing number of gifted actors being misused by this production; in addition to Murray, Jones and Robbins, there’s also Mary Kay Place, Marianne Jean-Baptiste (as the only person of color in all of Ember), Mackenzie Crook and Martin Landau wasting their time.

While producers Fox Walden continue in their efforts to bring interesting books for youngsters to the big screen, moviegoers are advised to read the novel and skip the flick.