9 (2009) / Animation-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and scary images
Running Time: 79 min.
Cast (voices): Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Fred Tatasciore, Alan Oppenheimer
Director: Shane Acker
Screenplay: Pamela Pettler
Review published August 20, 2010
9 is the full-length version of director Shane Acker's 11-minute mostly dialogue-less computer animated short film from 1995 that went on to garner an Academy Award nomination. Producer Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Batman Forever) became a fan of the Acker's vision and artistic sensibility and consulted with Acker to produce an expanded film based on the original story to bring to the big screen. Acker directs his first feature film impressively, with stunning special effects, sound effects, and fluid animation. Alas, the grim story doesn't quite have the narrative substance to maintain a feature-length film, even at a paltry 79 minutes, and also lacks an emotional core that could have given the story more resonance. Still, it's gorgeous to look at, and plot contains enough original components to merit a recommendation for lovers of futuristic fables and high animated concepts.
The setting of 9 is a post-apocalyptic future where human being have become extinct when their robotic creations have decided to eradicate their creators. The title refers to the name of the main character, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood, Happy Feet), who happens to be a sort of burlap rag doll created for reasons he isn't initially aware of, soon piecing together his reason to exist and his mission to save humanity once he discovers several of his similarly created brethren. The key to the mystery lies in a small round artifact of unusual design which seems to have power to steal away souls, which is used to terrifying results once it becomes the centerpiece of a hulking arachnid-like robot of unimaginable agility, strength and menace.
I think we're almost to a stage in Hollywood cinema where I don't need to state in a review that an animated film isn't really meant to be for small children (especially when it is clearly rated PG-13), although I feel, given the cute way the heroes are modeled, that they may still think it's supposed to be. There is no sex or foul language, but the images might be considered scary (though far from terrifying) and the dour themes of a planet full of dead people and menacing robots who co-opt the skulls of former living beings for parts might still produce a few bad dreams for the more impressionable members of the audience.
9's assets are the aforementioned effects and rendering, and anyone who sees a clip of the film will easily see that it is a top-notch quality production. But effects aren't what ultimately breathes life into these characters. Acker has some interesting concepts, ranging from a cautionary tale of relying too much on machines to cater to human needs, to the value of life and human existence. Humans aren't depicted as all good, as the impetus of our downfall is human evil itself run amok, but the good parts of humanity are what's represented in the 9 rag dolls, who, through their adventure, must find a way to defeat the horrific robot factory and assure that the human legacy can live on, even if not through the bodies of actual humans.
9 isn't an easy film to recommend, given the dark subject matter and underdeveloped plot. It's more a film for those who appreciate craftsmanship in animation and dystopia in futuristic science fiction than those looking for the comical characters and whimsical delights that usually permeate Hollywood animated features, even of the more mature variety. It feels like a rough draft of a movie made by people so concerned with getting the little details right that they lose sight of the bigger picture.
©2010 Vince Leo