9 is the ambitious animated film from newcomer Shane Acker. The film is beautiful, yet is still flawed. However people who have been bored by traditional American animation, and moved onto the Japanese variety, might want to hold off on the switch. This new film along with Focus Feature’s other animated film this year, “Coraline,” shows an attention to detail that is so great that it brings the animation world to new levels.
9, which is based off of Shane Acker’s short film of the same name, follows the title character 9 from the moment he wakes up in ‘The Scientists’ workshop, to his discovery of other ‘stitchpunks’ like himself. He first meets the kind and intelligent 2 who lets him know they are not alone. Unfortunately 2 is not to stay his guide for long, and is taken by ‘The Beast’, a feline type robot that inhabits the skeleton of an old cat. In his escape he finally runs into more ‘stitchpunks’ like himself. There is the domineering leader 1, his loyal brutish oaf 8, the assistant to 2, the loyal 5. When 9 and 5 go on a rescue mission for 2, 9 unleashes something that should have never been awoken. This is when we meet the rest of the ‘stitchpunks’. 3 and 4 are shy, curious, and keep the records. 6 is slightly insane, but also maybe prophetic. 7 is fierce and the warrior of the group. Once this new beast is awake they must all band together to fight this new evil.
It isn’t easy to do a synopsis of a story where every character is a number. In the film each one of these characters has its own unique personality that shines through. The star studded cast including the likes of Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and Crispin Glover all play there parts well, but the voice acting isn’t the star here, it is the visuals. It is a struggle for the voice acting and the story to maintain afloat without being overwhelmed by the powerful visual storytelling. In Shane Acker’s original short film, there is no dialogue, everything is told through visuals. Once again here the animation is the real storyteller, not our narrators.
Every frame of this post-apocalyptic steampunk thriller is so jam packed with detail that you wonder just how long each frame must have taken to animate. The world which has been destroyed in a war between humans and machine seems so desolate, but so well structured that even with it’s far fetched steampunk style design you can believe that this world exists. So many CGI animated films tend to have that rubbery look where everything feels just a bit too fake, and the people are at the wrong part of the uncanny valley. 9 gives more life into the expressions of its 9 little animated figures than any animated film to date. Each of them have their own loping grace, and faces that emote so well that the dialogue seems almost a throwaway for people with no empathy.
I found myself constantly in awe at the backdrops to the scenes. This is not a world I would want to visit, but to live vicariously through one of these tiny characters and explore this massive decaying city would be a joy, if not for the fear of some sinister robotic beast tracking you down. No, if there is one thing I can determine about this film absolutely, is that it creates beauty in a world where none should be able to exist. I can’t fault any of the animation in this move because that aspect of it is flawless.
So, what is the flawed part? The story. It isn’t that the story isn’t interesting, but it feels like it is constantly building to something epic, only to come crashing down in one short lived action sequence. There were at least three separate occasions while watching the film where the film felt like it was moving to some goal, and rather than a slow build it would instantly climax into something that was less impressive then what the story would lead us to believe. Its running time of 81 minutes does it no favors. Acker set for himself up for an epic tale, and it looks like many of the elements were there, just not formulated to a complete realization.
In the end, if you want to see one of the most impressive visual movies of the past few years then 9 is going to be right up your alley. If you are expecting a story that fits in as well with those visuals then prepare to be disappointed. It isn’t that it is a bad story, it just doesn’t live up to the expectations that the rest of the film gives you.
9 gets a B+
Another Take From Zac:
Shane Acker’s feature length debut is a bit of a half baked idea paired with astonishing visuals that in the end overcomes most of its short comings with its imagination and originality.
9 awakens in a world destroyed by war and immediately is thrown into an adventure to not only save a new friend, but to discover the world and what happened to it. 9 himself is a sack like creature (think Little Big Planet without as big a head) and he quickly discovers that he is not the only one of his kind milling about. The human race is all but gone, as a war with machines has decimated both their world and the species, and all that we are aware of being left is a group of frightened and reclusive sack creatures numbered from 1-9. The remaining group quickly tries to convince 9 to hide with them and not try and do anything heroic after the loss of the fourth member of their group to a monstrous machine that prowls the city. But 9 won’t have it and is able to sway 5 to head after 2 and the adventure soon becomes even bigger than they thought possible as a new threat arises from their search.
Now the whole idea of machines destroying the world and what have you I understand is a bit tired, but it is not the focal point and is more a catalyst for the story and the confrontations of the film. Above this idea lies an interesting and unique story about these little creatures that are enlightened by 9’s appearance and his gung ho attitude to see what is out there. Though a couple things might make you go wait a minute? 9’s motivations come out of no where and he seems to be acting just because the film needs him too as the hero. Now the origins of these creatures might help you rationalize why he is the way he is, but it doesn’t quite make sense and isn’t adequately explained. In fact, the end game of the picture leaves you scratching your head quite a bit as it is a touching end but doesn’t quite make a lot of sense again as they leave things to open.
But like I mentioned in the intro, the film mostly overcomes these confusing bits with incredible visuals and elaborate set pieces that will distract you from any of the awkward story stuff. The action scenes come quick and are beautifully executed with everyone playing a part that is involved in each respective scene. The battles are also just epic in proportions, taking place all over the sets and causing loads of destruction and drama for the characters in their peril. In fact, one thing that this film has going for it is its ability to establish anyone can go at any moment as a number of the characters will fall before it is all said and done. In particular, the attack by the winged creation on the characters is one of the finer action sequences of the year and was the stand out scene in the film. 3 and 4 are also extremely well done and are creative characters and will probably become your favorite of the 9 the instant they show up.
The voice work in the film is also very adequate with John C Reilly as 5 and Elijah Wood as 9 getting the most time in the picture. Wood brings confidence and go for it attitude to 9 but is more or less the same character from Happy Feet here. Reilly on the other hand creates this torn and vulnerable character that slowly emerges from his shell and is really the stand out in the picture. Crispin Glover as 6 also does some nice work, though he is delegated to the background most of the time.
In the end, 9 is a wonderful looking animated film that has a unique vision that doesn’t quite execute to its fullest. Be prepared to wonder why everyone is acting the way they are and hopefully you can make some sense of the explanation and ending as I don’t think it works 100%. But at a tight run time and a quick pace the film moves right along with some awesome action scenes grounded with wonderful production values and some great animation that will make the film more than enjoyable. One just can’t help but wonder what this could have been if they had worked out all of the head scratching plot details and made a more cohesive story. Oh well, its still worth your time.
9 is a B