Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Visual Marvel, 9 Is Not Just A Kid's Movie, It's Wonderful, Classic-feeling Science Fiction!

Pros: Animation, Pacing, Story
Cons: Somewhat repetitive, Light on character
The Bottom Line: Clever and often harrowing, 9 presents a dismal world where the last remnants of civilization (sentient sock puppets) fight for survival against killer machines!

I had hoped to get to New York City for the advanced screening of 9 I had tickets to, but money being what it, my wife and I opted not to drive a couple hundred miles just to see it. Instead, after a particularly rough day at work for her, I treated her to the rather short movie at a local theater where she could be comfortable and we could still afford one of her Big Blue drinks she grew to love over the summer.

9 is an animated film and given recent obsessions with making 3-D movies, it is a surprise that this was not this week's big 3-D adventure. With an animation quality that exceeds that of Coraline, I imagine much of the film would have been absolutely amazing in three-D. Even so, the film is a visual marvel and it is easy to watch and get carried away in the almost constant action, unraveling the mystery the beings of 9 find themselves immersed in. I use the word "beings" because the primary characters of the film are animated (literally for our world and in its secondary context for the in-film sensibility) constructs, essentially dolls that have been imbued with consciousness. Each puppet has a number on its back and 9 follows, appropriately enough, the journey of the ninth construct.

9 awakens to an empty city, frightened and alone. He soon encounters 2, though, a constructed sackcloth puppet with the ability to speak, an appreciation for 9's body and workmanship, and an interest in keeping 9 safe. He provides 9 with a component to allow the frightened young puppet to speak and they set off together. Almost instantly, though, they are ambushed and 2 - and a component he removed from 9 - is carried off by a mechanized dog. Terrified, 9 collapses and awakens in the company of 1 (a leader), 5 (a meek friend who has lost an eye), 6 (a somewhat crazy scientist), and 8 (a thug enforcing 1's will). 9 is eager to find and recover 2, but 1 forbids him.

9 finds a kindred spirit in 5 and together they set off to try to rescue 2. They find 2 and the evil mechanized dog, which is dispatched by 7, a warrior 1 had already written off for dead. Unfortunately, in the process of rescuing 2, 9 unleashes a great evil and 2,7, and 9 meet up with the remaining two (3 and 4 are mute scholars studying the world and what happened to it). As 1 tries to retain control of the community, 7 attempts to keep her peers alive and 9 tries to figure out how to stop the new monstrosity, it becomes clear that all of the creatures are imperiled and none might survive!

9 is not, truly, a kid's movie. It is fast-paced and violent for most of the film with the characters running fast or dying graphically. Given how quickly there is a casualty in the film, it ruins nothing to reveal that there are characters who are killed and it happens graphically on screen and little children are likely to be freaked out. My wife (not a child) squeezed my hand when there were several quick reversals as characters found themselves at the mercy of the mechanized spider-like claws of the film's primary villain. And while I was never scared when she asked me if I was, I felt concern for the film's protagonist; given how quickly 2 is dispatched (and how horribly) there is a very real sense throughout the entire film that any character's number could be up.

To that end, 9 has a very simple plot. This is a classic science fiction premise where machines and man have done battle and the Earth has been left a wasteland. While the film is touted for having Tim Burton as its executive producer, co-writer and director Shane Acker presents a film that has more of an adult sense of darkness and depth to it. As a result, producer Timur Bekmambetov's Nightwatch and Daywatch are more apt comparisons. Though Acker is not as outlandish as that director, he creates a creative piece that is intense and viewers care about the peril the characters are put in.

However, much of the film is pretty predictable. 9 is at fault, 9 is on a quest for redemption and he goes through the pretty obvious steps of figuring out how to make right what he has done. In this sense, this is a very simple fantasy story with a predictable hero arc. Fortunately, 9 does not have all of the answers or even all of the tools at his disposal to figure out what to do. For that, he relies on some of the others. 7 is a traditional action hero (almost a ninja) who has the physical speed and strength to stop mechanized baddies the team encounters, as well as some training to apply her strengths. Similarly, 3 and 4 are wonderfully efficient at finding the information that the others need to figure out what has happened to the world and how best to survive.

1, voiced by Christopher Plummer, is an archetypal fearful leader whose conservative approach is making those he tries to protect afraid and dead more often than not. While 9 might have unleashed a great evil into the world, 1's "run away" policy is not making anything better. Plummer lends a dignity and power to the role through the strength of his voice acting. He is a professional who has done this sort of thing before and he has a wonderful vocal presence that emotes well beyond the animation.

John C. Reilly (5) and Jennifer Connelly (7) do good work as well, but they tend to have supporting roles. Reilly has a chance to deliver a comedic line that is very much in his sensibility for timing and delivery and he makes it work as 5. Connelly seems to relish voicing an action hero and she delivers the few lines her character is given well. Elijah Wood, however, is called upon to carry most of the movie as the film's title character. Wood is able to convey emotions well, especially the sense of sorrow for what happens to 2 as well as the sense of determination to stop the big machine that is pillaging the ruins, but his character is somewhat monolithic. From the outset, 9 is trying to figure things out and rebelling against stagnation. He wants to charge into the fire; rescue 2 and stop the machine. So 9 does not have a lot of range for Wood to play with.

9 is entertaining and it is dark and well-animated. The idea is clever and the film's departure from ongoing action sequences for a history lesson to explain the origins of the characters as well as the state of the burned-out world are well-presented and well-timed. Viewers are not likely to get tired of the characters or the action as a result of the effective blend of the two. But this seventy-nine minute movie (disgustingly short for the price of a movie ticket!) is largely about spectacle and it delivers on that front. This is a distinctive animated world and it is one that it is easy to get lost in, even if for such a short time.

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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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