In what is one of the better release day stunts since Friday The 13th movies came out on Friday the 13th, the anticipated computer animated film 9 was released on 09-09-09. It was even showing in theater 9 when I went to check it out, undoubtely due to some behind the scenes machinations by Focus Features. That with a sustained marketing blitz helped to create buzz, but PG-13 animation is kind of a dicey proposition.
9 may be computer animation, but it is definitely not for children. Based on director/writer Shane Acker’s Oscar-nominated short film, 9 is the story of nine little clockwork ‘stitchpunk’ dolls who are the only remnants of life on earth after a catastrophic war between humans and machines. Think of it as kind of a post-Terminator world in which nothing survived save the nine stitchpunks and an ominous entity known as The Beast. Little do the clockwork characters know that The Beast is the least of their problems.
There’s not a whole lot of plot to 9. 9 (Elijah Wood) wakes up, is discovered by 2 (Martin Landau), and later meets 1 (Christopher Plummer), 5 (John C. Reilly), 6 (Crispin Glover), 7 (Jennifer Connelly), and 8 (Fred Tatasciore). They struggle to find their place in the new world while trying to learn about where they come from and what happened to make the world the way it is. Kind of like the same basic questions we all ask ourselves, except we’re not festooned with buttons and zippers. What the movie lacks in story and dialogue it makes up for in some delirious action sequences.
9 is an incredible movie in terms of sheer visual artistry. The movie is gorgeously animated, featuring incredible textures and lots of dynamics in terms of character design. Their burlap bodies have burlap texture. There’s stitching. The copper eyes and hands have that dulled coin appearance. It’s sumptuous. Yes, the nine kind of all look similar, but you never run the risk of not being able to tell any of them apart thanks to a number of very subtle differences. The creations walk the careful line between looking as though created by one man and being different enough to not be interchangeable They really are wonderful to behold.
The distinctive voices help quite a bit when it comes to keeping the characters straight, even if the actors aren’t given a whole lot to do with their roles. Martin Landau seemed to make the most impression in his limited screen time as the curious 2, as does Fred Tatasciore with his hulking 8. With Christopher Plummer in a prominent role, you know what to expect. That’s not to say there are any glaring problems with the actors or the script, but it doesn’t really do much beyond the standard action movie dialogue.
Animated movies keep getting more and more detailed, but 9 seems to take it to a new level, even bypassing Wall-E in terms of building a post-apocalyptic world. Due to the small size of the stitchpunks, everything seems alien and monstrous to them, which makes the foreboding world in which they live even more ominous and threatening. The entire movie is pretty grim, in fact. Very dark and very devastated in a way that Wall-E didn’t evoke nearly as well. There was still hope for that world, but the world of 9? Not so much.
Shane Acker was one of the special effect wizards at WETA before this movie, and his digital animation background shows. The stitchpunks chase and are chased, they fight and fly through the landscape with flair, but there’s not a lot of substance to go with the style. It’s a yummy bit of eye candy, but there’s no real chewy nougat center.
Still, 9 is a film with a whole lot of energy, and unlike a lot of recent movies, there’s no fat to speak of. 9 breezes onto the screen, tells its story, raises pulses, and departs without overstaying its welcome or attempting to pad beyond its lean 79-minute runtime. In a movie landscape where anything under 90 minutes is rare, 9 is a well-paced nugget of thrills. Sure, you may have seen them all before, but they’ve never been quite this pretty.