Directed by Shane Acker
Starring Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau
Studio: Focus Features
Release date: 9/9/09 (clever right?)
I’m a big fan of animation in all its forms, but I’m also an adult, and I want a good story to go along with what I’m watching. That’s what I was hoping for when I first started seeing previews for the film 9. It looked like more of an adult action film, which just happened to be done with CG animation. Add in the names Tim Burton, whose done great animation work before with the Nightmare Before Christmas and the Corpse Bride, and Timur Bekmambetov, who directed Wanted as well as two very visually experimental movies in Night Watch and Day Watch, and you’ve made a movie that I’ll want to see. See is the operative word when it comes to 9, because while it is spectacular looking, the rest of my mind could never get into the film.
The story is fairly simple. A creature made out of cloth (voiced by Elijah Wood) wakes up in a strange room, with a mysterious round object. (I’d accuse the filmmakers of ripping off LittleBigPlanet’s Sack-boy if I didn’t know that the short film this is based on hadn’t come out well before the game.) He can’t speak and doesn’t know anything about what’s going on, so he ventures out until he runs across another cloth man, who says his name is 2 (Martin Landau), and sees that the new one has a 9 on his back, so that’s what he calls him. 2 is also nice enough to hook 9 up with a voice box so he can speak. Shortly after, 2 is captured by some kind of monster and taken away. 9 is determined to rescue him and sets off to the factory where he saw 2 was taken. Along the way he meets a number of creatures just like him (voiced by John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Connelly, and Crispin Glover), and then he ends up almost dooming what remains of life. Then the creatures run around, learning where they come from, why they were created, and how they can save whatever life remains on the Earth.
To get the good things out of the way, 9 looks amazing. The film takes place in a dark, apocalyptic landscape, and while that could lead to the film being muddy and confusing, all the action is easy to follow, and none of the action gets lost in the dark. The world is fully brought to life, just with the little bits of rubble that are everywhere, and tons of little touches that make the world realistic, regardless of the little walking rag dolls. The textures on the creatures make them look like the sacks of cloth that they are supposed to be, and each one has an individual looks: 1 and 2 are supposed to be older, so their cloth looks a bit more worn; 7 is a female, and her cloth is smoother than the others.
Special attention was paid to the eyes of 9 and his compatriots, and just the little things the creatures do with their bodies brings across their characters. They each have little movements that make them seem like real people with individual quirks. When you’re watching, you can understand what each character is about in just a few minutes, and that helps somewhat with my ability to get into the story. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a great voice cast that also helps to bring the characters to life. I could listen to Christopher Plummer read the phone book, and the rest of the cast does an equally great job.
Finally, the action sequences in the movie are out of sight! There are some sequences that are more intense than any action scene I’ve seen this summer, if not in the last several summers. And frankly, it’s the action that pushes this film into more mature territory than most other CG movies. It’s mature in an overly bloody, f-bombs going off all the time kind of way, but it is very much an edge of your seat kind of action. Director Shane Acker clearly has a handle on all elements of how to create a great looking film.
The only problem with the film is the plot and unfortunately, it’s a big problem. Honestly, the plot is only there to get the characters from one place to the next. By the third time 9 said “We have to go back [to previous location]” I was just laughing. There’s no real story here, and it doesn’t seem like the creators even really tried. The plot is so non-existent, that you never really care about what happens to the characters. One of the rag-dolls, number 2, gets captured in the first fifteen minutes of the film, but we’re introduced so quickly that it doesn’t really matter what happens to him. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but that kind of thing happens several times in the film; we’re supposed to care when bad stuff happens to the characters, but the story hasn’t earned the level of gravitas that it is reaching for. What you end up with is a movie that lurches from each action set piece to the next, without ever engaging the audience. You could make an argument that it’s a cartoon, so it’s for kids and it doesn’t need a deep or complicated story, but honestly, because of the intense action in parts of the movie, this is not a film for kids under the age of say 10-12. Plus the argument that cartoons are only for kids is crap anyway.
And don’t get me started on the tacked on “romance” between 9 and 7, because A) if the characters are supposed to be different aspects of the scientist who creates them, is 7 his feminine side or something, or is it his ego-centric side, because he’s basically falling in love with himself, and B) they’re creatures made of cloth with no discernible organs; how are they supposed to reproduce? Is the baby going to gestate in a burlap sack? It’s entirely possible I’m over-thinking this whole aspect of the story, but the story is so pointless that it just opens itself up for ridicule.
In the end, this is a fantastic looking film that is let down by an overly simplistic story that fails to engage the audience. There are many imaginative aspects to the film and some of the action sequences are very intense, but I never really cared about what happened to the characters. At 79 minutes, the film may just be way too short to build any emotional connection to the characters. It’s a shame really because I wanted the film to be really good, and it’s only average at best. Don’t let the Tim Burton name drop fool you into going to see it, it didn’t even seem like his fingerprints were anywhere near this film. If you’re really into CG animation, it’s a visual feast, and you may want to see it. For most everyone, I’d give it a pass or a rental at best. Hopefully the director will be able to do another film in this visual style, but with a much better story. I’m giving this one 2 underwhelmed sacks of animated life out of 5.