Let’s take a moment to appreciate what a great year this has been for animation: With “Coraline,” “Up,” “Ponyo” and even the hilarious “Monsters vs. Aliens” in theaters over the last few months — on the heels of recent films like “Persepolis,” “WALL-E,” “Waltz with Bashir” and the criminally underrated “Meet the Robinsons” — we’re definitely in a Golden (or Silver or Some Other Precious Metal) Age for the artform.
And now there’s “9,” and even if it’s not quite at the level of the afore-mentioned, the film is a stirring adventure tale that’s guaranteed to garner some well-deserved attention for Shane Acker, an animator making his feature directorial debut.
While the grim and gritty post-apocalyptic setting — call it Industrial Blight and Tragic — make this PG-13 title very much not for little kids, “9” gets a lot of empathy and pathos from its cast of (literally) stitched-together characters.
Our hero, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), comes to life just as the mortal coil departs his maker, a scientist. Appearing to be a mechanical doll with expressive lens-eyes, 9 sets out to find companionship on a devastated, bombed-out Earth that’s got terrors lurking around every corner. A mechanical beast comes after 9 almost immediately after he hits the ground running, but he’s quickly rescued by 2 (Martin Landau), a zipped-up burlap wiz who gives 9 a voice-box and some guidance through this horrifying landscape.
The clanking behemoth takes 2 away, but not before he’s able to guide 9 to safety in an abandoned church. There 9 meets the friendly 5 (John C. Reilly), the seemingly disturbed and obsessed 6 (Crispin Glover) and the tyrannical 1 (Christopher Plummer), who rules over his tiny fiefdom with the assistance of the hulking 8 (Fred Tatasciore).
In order to rescue 2, 9 and 5 eventually sneak out, meeting up with the adventurous 7 (Jennifer Connolly) and the non-speaking twins 3 and 4, who have become the repository of all remaining knowledge. 9 learns that mankind had created war machines which eventually became sentient and turned on their creators; by using an object given him by his creator, 9 accidentally reignites the deadly machines, and he must travel back to the creator’s lab to learn how these nine creatures are connected and how they can stop the machines from once again destroying the world.
Plot-wise, “9” is basically an amalgam of go-to-the-place-and-get-the-thing-and-kill-the-bad-guy storylines with some warmed-over platitudes about the evils of mechanization. But what Pamela Pettler’s screenplay (from a story by Acker, who expanded his short film “9” to feature length) lacks in originality is more than made up for the fact that these characters all eventually feel unique and fleshed-in; by the end, I found myself moved by the fate of these ragdolls. (The voice actors, particularly Wood and Plummer, help immensely in bringing these characters to life.)
Ultimately, the real star here is Acker’s eye for a world in shambles and the creatures, both heroic and fearsome, left to live in it. If Acker can marry his substantial visual acuity with a stronger sense of storytelling, he’s got the potential to be one of this generation’s great animators.
PLOT: 9 awakens. This child of science is merely a sack that somehow has found a life inside his man made body. And when he wakes, he finds a world of destruction and fear. It is a world where machines have ruled over and destroyed man. As he makes his way out into the dark and scary city, he finds that there are others like him. But there are others that are not at all like him too. They are metallic beasts, one of which takes a friendly “scientist” he has met. 9 attempts to save him after some of the other survivors refuse, but in his effort, he wakes a monster far more dangerous than the one who took his friend. It is up to 9 and the other little creatures that discovered him to fight and destroy the very monster he brought out of its slumber.
REVIEW: 9. The title alone is mysterious and could truly be about anything. What is the meaning of the single digit number? What kind of story does it tell? Quite simply, it is about the end of the world, and how a small band of one man’s creation must try and save each other from a monstrous, mechanical beast. A spider like entity of metal and claw that has been awakened. One of these creations, 9 (Elijah Wood), remains at the center as his very own innocence brought the beast to it’s current state. Yet it was simply his own curiosity as to the magic that may happen when a round device is placed into its conforming socket. While he is responsible, it seems he just may be the only one that can stop it. At least amongst this group of small creatures he has joined, those that are made of a small bag that can be opened and closed by a zipper. These odd little things are alone in a world filled with destruction and metallic horrors. And yes, this world is terribly horrific. There is a reason that 9 is rated PG-13.
This is a civilization that has finally died. It was a war between man and machine and the machines won. In a way, this is the film that TERMINATOR: SALVATION wanted to be but failed. 9 is scary and directed with tension and a eerie look into a grim future thanks to Shane Acker. Based on his Academy Award-nominated 2004 short film, he has successfully created a society that has wasted away, with only these oddities created by a scientist determined to give hope to a hopeless future. He gives his work a spark of life in hopes that they will somehow bring humanity back after the destruction. And it certainly is a dark view of what may become. The vision contains remnants of early Tool videos including “Sober” and “Prison Sex”, yet it finds depth to what would otherwise be a knapsack with a zipper down the middle. It is easy to see what both Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov saw in this apocalyptic story.
The talent behind the characters also works quite well. Along with Elijah Wood, we have Jennifer Connelly as #7, Crispin Glover as #6, John C. Reilly as #5, Christopher Plummer as #1 and Martin Landau as #2. I especially appreciated Mr. Reilly as the skittish fellow that has been bullied by #1 to do exactly what he says. After all, these creatures have found a safe place, so it is clear that this #9 is going to cause trouble for them, at least that is #1’s thought. And he is actually correct, but in risking their safety, he may be able to help rid the world of the beasts that roam and threaten their very soul. The script by Pamela Pettler is one that avoids the typical pitfalls of some family fare. 9 is an innocent in this world filled with death, but that innocent is at times harmful. Although, I question whether this is truly “family fare”. This a terribly hellish vision and it is definitely not for all young ones. The bad guys are nightmare inducing and the prospect of hope is pretty dire.
But if the young ones are a little more mature, and can handle a few scares and a heavy storyline, this is a truly inspired fable. But as inspired as it was, there are a few moments that rely too much on the hypnotic imagery and sometimes drag themselves out. And even though I appreciated the quirks of #9 causing trouble, I am guessing more than a few folks watching the events unfold will get a little annoyed at the little sack. You know what they say, curiosity killed the cat. But this is a rich fantasy that is really refreshing in a world where sequels and remakes are constantly consumed every box office weekend. The voices are well cast, and director Shane Acker has the vision to make it a dark and fascinating journey. 9 has borrowed moments here and there, but it is told in a refreshingly unique way. There is beauty and hope deep inside the nightmare, and you will certainly be moved by 9’s adventures. RATING: 8/10 – JimmyO
The animated movie "9" is bathed in dark tones from the beginning. But a few minutes into the narrative, it becomes clear just how grim Shane Acker's world is going to be.
The protagonist, a little burlap doll with watch parts for innards, walks by a car door that's open a crack. An adult human and a child, both clearly dead, are huddled in the passenger seat, locked in an eternal embrace.
The first thing that needs to be said about "9" is that it's a long way from "Madagascar 2." The movie starts with the premise that the human race is extinct - and there's no spaceship full of chubby refugees waiting to be rescued. Taking your very small child to this movie is only a slightly better idea than a trip to "The Final Destination."
With that warning out of the way, this action adventure is a big treat for more mature animation and science-fiction fans and a triumph for the young director whose short film by the same name was championed by Tim Burton.
Hollywood doesn't produce many PG-13 animated films. Acker makes this one count.
"9" is all heart and action, channeling "The Magnificent Seven," with more characters and a bleaker background. (Imagine if Cormac McCarthy had directed "The Incredibles.") A scientist who knows that every living thing is about to disappear forever breathes life into nine cloth-skinned mechanical dolls, whose personalities range from fierce warrior to tortured artist to megalomaniac.
These survivors go on a journey to unlock the secret to their existence, while dodging and sometimes battling the killing machines responsible for ridding the planet of life. The ninth doll possesses a round talisman, and a catlike walking erector set with blades instead of a face is one of a half dozen mechanical monstrosities that want it too.
The complications of the plot are the weakest part of the film. Acker is better at capturing moments than stitching everything together for a satisfying big picture, and the ending in particular has a painted-in-a-corner feeling. But there's so much to like about the film, starting with the enthusiasm of the young director. Acker pays homage to his influences (he's a "Star Wars" fan, apparently) and still leaves his mark on the genre. His eye for framing shots is excellent, as is the use of light. Each scene is vibrant, even with a near-complete lack of primary colors.
The battle scenes in particular have a swashbuckling vibe that adds a welcome dose of humanity to the movie. Danny Elfman's score is strong. And the perfectly cast voice actors - usually only noticeable in animated films when they're bad - are nuanced and memorable. From a technical point of view, "9" never disappoints.
As for the dark tone, it's reminiscent of movies such as "Labyrinth" and some of Steven Spielberg's earlier work. While children still watching Tigger videos should stay away, older kids will enjoy the bloodless action and awesomeness infused into nearly every frame.
The first images are spellbinding. In close-up, thick fingers make the final stitches in a roughly humanoid little rag doll, and binocular eyes are added. This creature comes to life, walks on tottering legs, and ventures fearfully into the devastation of a bombed-out cityscape. This visionary world was first created as a short subject by Shane Acker, a student at UCLA, and was nominated for a 2006 Oscar. At the time I found it "an atmosphere of creeping, crashing, menace... elaborated as a game of hide and seek, beautifully animated and intriguingly unwholesome." So it is still, as the first figure, named "9," meets his similar predecessors #1 through #8, and they find themselves in battle against a Transformer-like red-eyed monster called the Beast.
One might question the purpose of devising a life form in a world otherwise without life, only to provide it with an enemy that wishes only to destroy it. The purpose, alas, is to create a pretext for a series of action scenes, an apocalyptic battle that is visually more interesting than, but as relentless as, similar all-action-all-the-time movies. This is a disappointment. Remembering the promise of his original short, I look forward to what Acker would do at feature length, especially with a producer like Tim Burton to watch his back.
The characters look similar, but easy enough to tell apart, not least because they have their numbers stitched on their backs. They also have different visual characteristics, and are voiced by distinctive actors, including Christopher Plummer as their fearful leader, #1, and Jennifer Connolly as the token female #7. The usefulness of gender in a species without genitalia is not discussed, not even wistfully.
Nine is the youngest, probably the smartest, and certainly the most daring, leading the others, against #1's wishes, to poke around the ruins. These look left over from a city from the past, not the future, and a 1940ish newsreel reports on a devastating global war triggered by a Hitleresque dictator. Was the Beast left behind to wipe out any survivors, and assure final victory even in the absence of victors?
Such questions, I submit, are intriguing. But the dialog is mostly simplified Action Speak, with barked warnings and instructions and strategy debates of the most rudimentary kind. Since this movie is clearly targeted not at kiddies but at teens and up, is it now Hollywood theory that eloquence and intelligence are no longer useful in action dialogue?
One of the benefits of the pre-CGI era was that although action scenes might be manifestly artificial, they had to be composed of details that were visually intelligible. Modern CGI artists, intoxicated by their godlike command of imagery, get carried away and add confusing complexity. If I were pressed to provide the cops with a detailed description of the Beast, the best I could do would be: "You'll know it when you see it. Also, it has a big glowing red eye."
Contrast that to the enormous construction in Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle." It is awesomely complex, but I have a large print of one of Miyazaki's still drawings from the film, and you can clearly see that it's all there.
"9" is nevertheless worth seeing. It might have been an opportunity for the sort of challenging speculation sci-fi is best at, however, and the best reason to see it is simply because of the creativity of its visuals. They're entrancing.
"9" is just about the only animated movie this year not to be released in 3-D. But it flaunts meticulous design and downbeat color scheme (browns, blacks, glowing toxic greens) that provoke a similar response. At least twice, my hand motioned toward the screen to touch what I saw. The wax in a stub of a candle, the grooved grains in a piece of wood that passes for a pair of hands, the bird's skull that serves as a helmet. It's a stupid but involuntary response, the way some art makes you want to touch the canvas. You're tricked into believing in the tactility of what is so obviously only visual.
The movie, conceived and directed by Shane Acker, is computer-animated but moves in the lifelike jerkiness of old-fashioned stop-motion. Acker brings us another story of a world on its post-apocalyptic last leg, only this one, imaginatively enough, is populated solely by machines and a collection of nine living puppets called stitchpunks, which might put a smile on many a science fiction writer's face.
The stitchpunks are the final vestiges of an elaborate metaphysical science experiment, and they hold the key to restoring humanity, which has been reduced to these puppets. "9" is set in a bombed-out city (it feels like London after a nuclear blitz), and begins with the awakening of the puppet whose name gives the movie its title and whose voice belongs to Elijah Wood.
Nine was the last of these science experiments. His number is inked across his back, and he gradually discovers that he is not alone. He meets, among others, the efficient 2 (Martin Landau), the oafish, one- eyed 5 (John C. Reilly), the imperious, rather cowardly elder statesman, 1 (Christopher Plummer), and 3 (Jennifer Connelly), an adventuress who's game for anything. They wear their numbers, too, and, after 2 goes missing, they band together and take on the rampaging machine - a giant metallic arachnid - that appears to want their souls.
The tale is spare (Acker has harvested this 79-minute film from his Oscar-nominated short), which means there's time to marvel at the many splendid details. All the puppet and monster parts are found materials. Nine is made of burlap. He's built like a pear. His hands are wooden, his fingers metal. Each of the dolls has a different fastener stitched onto his front: 9's zips up (and down), 1 has metal snaps, 2 has laces, 5 has buttons. Each puppet has goggles for eyes. The centers are camera shutters, but each has been customized to express its owner's personality. One's shutter, for instance, opens at a much slower aperture. Nothing this homemade should be this sophisticated, and yet it is.
Tim Burton is one of the producers of "9." The Russian director of "Night Watch," "Day Watch," and last summer's Angelina Jolie action contraption "Wanted," Timur Bekmambetov, is another. That they've tapped Acker to join their gang is testament to the grandeur of Acker's sunless vision. He wrote the movie with Ben Gluck, and Pamela Pettler, who also wrote Burton's stop-motion musical "Corpse Bride." "9" also recalls Terry Gilliam, Chris Marker, Jan Svankmajer, and the Quay brothers - some contortions of "Pinocchio" and "The Wizard of Oz" too. (There's a terrific sequence in which the surviving stitchpunks mount an LP of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on a phonograph, riding its crank up and down in short-lived bliss.)
These allusions and influences don't get in the way of the movie's originality, though. What I loved about "9" is how much evident care its makers have put into it. I suppose the folks behind "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" care just as much about craftsmanship and visual authenticity. But you also watch it fully aware that they're OK with turning apocalypse into a Happy Meal. It's a synthetically tidy, somewhat insincere entertainment.
Any optimism in "9," which is bound to try the fortitude of meeker children, feels hard-won. It actually ends in a bittersweet mystery. The film's finale suggests that the human race could indeed be restored. But in doing so it leaves several intriguing reproductive questions unresolved.
IF you ask me, Shane Acker's post-apocalyptic animated film "9" is better than the live-action flick "District 9."
Beyond their similar titles, these sci-fi social commentaries are both expanded from shorts under the sponsorship of a world-class director -- although in the case of "9," it's Tim Burton rather than Peter Jackson for "District 9."
Set in a devastated world that most immediately recalls "Wall-E," the new film's chief protagonist is No. 9, an 8-inch doll-like robot voiced by Elijah Wood, who comes to life decades after his creator, and the rest of humankind, perished in a war.
The late scientist also stitched together No. 9's eight doll-like predecessors -- who are led by the autocratic and pessimistic No. 1 (Christopher Plummer) in mostly evading the enormous mechanical monster, created by the same man, who long ago eliminated the human race.
It's no surprise that No. 9, who has the most human-like characteristics of the group, has other ideas.
He enlists the help of elderly inventor No. 2 (Martin Landau); the mute, prankish archivists Nos. 3 and 4; the one-eyed engineer No. 5 (John C. Reilly); the artistically inclined No. 6 (Crispin Glover); the strong No. 8 (Fred Tatasciore) -- and especially the only female robot, the strong-willed No. 7 (Jennifer Connelly).
The screenplay by Pamela Pettler ("Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride") fleshes out the action with some witty dialogue.
But like "District 9," there's still a feeling that you're watching a very long (79 minutes, with lengthy credits) short subject in which the story doesn't develop much beyond its opening reels.
Where the two films differ are Acker's intoxicatingly rich visuals for the devastated world of "9," which draw extensively on the steampunk style.
"9" (which is a tad intense for very young kids) may not be an instant classic like "Wall-E," but it signals the arrival of Shane Acker as an audacious new talent to watch.
9, who is about the size and shape of one of those posable tabletop mannequins used by art students, has a soft burlap body and a zipper up his middle. His outsize eyes blink like camera shutters, and they take in a world of monstrous terror and haunting mystery.
In the 10-minute version of the animated film that bears his name, 9 and his comrades -- who I suppose should be called robots, though they are softer and rounder than the contraptions usually evoked by that word -- navigate their surroundings without speech. Now, at feature length, the main character's muteness is a temporary impediment, and he finds himself surrounded by eight other numbered automatons, introduced out of order like a row of Sudoku. (The numerologically inclined will note that the film's opening date is 9/9/09). Some of these figures speak in the polished tones of well-known actors, including John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly and Crispin Glover.
Once 2 (Martin Landau) gives him a tuneup, 9 begins asking questions in the voice of Elijah Wood. And one of the virtues of this "9," as of its shorter predecessor (both were directed by Shane Acker, who wrote the feature with Pamela Pettler) is that it does not rush toward answers. Instead it lingers in a strange, sinister and brilliantly realized landscape rich with allusions to the histories of painting, animation, fantastic literature and 20th-century totalitarianism.
It's a lot to stuff into 88 minutes, along with rattling monsters, hectic battle sequences and a series of debates between 9 and 1 (Christopher Plummer) about the proper response to danger. (1 wants to remain safe, hidden and ignorant, while 9 wants to fight, explore and learn. You can guess who prevails). But even though it grows a little busy at times and concludes with an unfortunate and unconvincing foray into mystico-spiritual mumbo jumbo, "9" shows remarkable imagination and visual integrity.
Combining two well-worn, endlessly fertile science fiction conceits - the postapocalyptic planet and the sensitive machine - Mr. Acker has made a parable of technological peril that is both exciting and satisfyingly enigmatic. Though he uses the latest computer-assisted techniques, his aesthetic has a pleasingly creaky, handmade feel, as if his main tools were not a mouse and a keyboard but rather a needle and thread.
The evil machines ranged against the soft-bodied robots resemble collaborations between Rube Goldberg and Hieronymus Bosch. They are demonic things with glowing eyes and ferocious appetites. The motive for their murderous zeal is one of the puzzles that 9, in the midst of struggling for survival, must try to solve.
This movie's affinity with "Wall-E," another fable of a soulful machine in a blighted, depopulated milieu, is clear enough, though "9" never achieves that film's lyrical sublimity. Some of Mr. Acker's influences are easy to spot, from experimental animators like Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay to Tim Burton, a producer of "9." Its look is smoky, dusty and vaguely European, and its gadgets have an analog solidity that suggests the futuristic nightmares of a long-ago time.
9 and his brethren, scuttling through bombed-out buildings like partisans in an occupied city, evading predatory bird- and spiderlike foes and quarreling among themselves, also try to piece together their own history. Their inquiry is both metaphysical - who made them, and why? - and practical: what are they made of, and how does it work? Answers are parceled out in quieter moments and in vivid rushes of imagery that punctuate the fights and flights.
The action is breathless and intense, the ravenous villains are frightening to behold, and the overall mood is probably too dark and anxious for very young children. But every effort to expand the range of feature-length animation beyond the confines of cautious family fare is to be welcomed, and budding techno and fantasy geeks are likely to be intrigued and enthralled.