Emerging new filmmaker Shane Acker took the critically acclaimed short he made while at UCLA and made it into the full-length feature film 9. Acker's short film is breathtakingly gorgeous, as is the movie version, and the main creatures who populate this post-apocalyptic world are extraordinary. However, as incredibly captivating as the 79 minute film is visually, the plot leaves a lot to be desired. And the last 15 minutes or so are a cop-out, and made me leave the theater feeling cheated.
Acker worked on his short for four years, with his effort paying off in a Gold Medal for animation at the 2005 Student Academy Awards. 9, the short, is scrumptious storytelling. Without a line of dialogue uttered, it's possible to become completely immersed in this world where humans no longer exist and rag dolls battle machines for survival. 9, the feature film, spends a fair amount of time explaining this world, setting up the rag doll characters and their enemies, the machines. Yet that set-up, the detailed backstory now given to these stitched up rag dolls, hinders rather than helps propel you into this fantasy world. It also serves to make the film's 'hero', the character #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), into one you don't root for and actually dislike; his actions are reckless, their consequences dire. I never felt that way about the central character of the short, and I'm not sure this distaste for #9 is something Acker was striving for with this expanded story.
The StoryMan brought about his own extinction by creating a machine too powerful to control. The scientist who invented this Great Machine did not mean for it to be used for destructive or evil purposes. But, of course, it was, and now all that's left of the human spirit is a series of numbered rag dolls stitched together by the machine's inventor prior to the end of the world as we know it.
As the film opens, the last of the dolls to come to life - #9 - is awakening. This distressing and depressing world into which #9 has sprung to life both frightens and fascinates the newborn creature. Ultimately, his curiosity wins out and he's off exploring this dingy, dreary world.
#9 shortly discovers he's not the only one of his kind, meeting up with #2 (Martin Landau), a kindly old doll who's a bit of a maverick. Their meeting is cut short when a machine shows up and captures #2. Fortunately, #9 is rescued and introduced to the remaining rag dolls, led by #1 (Christopher Plummer), a dictator who rules with an iron fist. #1 believes in order to survive in this scary world, they must remain forever in hiding. But #9 insists they try and rescue #2, and his rescuer, #5, backs his play. However, #1 is dead-set against any rescue mission and forbids #9 from leaving, believing this would endanger all the numbered dolls. #1's order to abandon any idea of leaving the hiding place to track the machine is ignored by #9, and by the helpful and friendly #5 (John C Reilly). Together they strike out to save #2 without a real plan of attack.
Once inside the machine's lair, they encounter another doll with an independent spirit, #7 (Jennifer Connelly). A rag doll version of Wonder Woman, #7 is a tough, resourceful fighter who saves #5 and #9 from certain death at the hands of one of the machines. Unfortunately, #9 acts foolishly without thinking, putting their lives in danger once again and setting in motion a grand showdown between the Great Machine and the rag doll community.
The Bottom Line
Definitely not a film for kids - which is absolutely fine...not all animated movies need to be aimed at the younger set - 9's simple story and dialogue makes it a tough film to embrace for adults as well. This arrestingly beautiful animated film places style over content. Despite a great concept, awesome animation, and a decent voice cast, the moral of 9 was completely lost on me. The messages are mixed, the final act contradictory to the film's first two. The story devolves and the film turns into just another average action movie, albeit one exquisitely animated. It could have - and should have, based on the talent Acker obviously possesses - been so much more.
9 was directed by Shane Acker, written by Pamela Pettler, and is rated PG-13 for violence and scary images.
Theatrical Release Date: September 9, 2009