Let’s take a moment to appreciate what a great year this has been for animation: With “Coraline,” “Up,” “Ponyo” and even the hilarious “Monsters vs. Aliens” in theaters over the last few months — on the heels of recent films like “Persepolis,” “WALL-E,” “Waltz with Bashir” and the criminally underrated “Meet the Robinsons” — we’re definitely in a Golden (or Silver or Some Other Precious Metal) Age for the artform.
And now there’s “9,” and even if it’s not quite at the level of the afore-mentioned, the film is a stirring adventure tale that’s guaranteed to garner some well-deserved attention for Shane Acker, an animator making his feature directorial debut.
While the grim and gritty post-apocalyptic setting — call it Industrial Blight and Tragic — make this PG-13 title very much not for little kids, “9” gets a lot of empathy and pathos from its cast of (literally) stitched-together characters.
Our hero, 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), comes to life just as the mortal coil departs his maker, a scientist. Appearing to be a mechanical doll with expressive lens-eyes, 9 sets out to find companionship on a devastated, bombed-out Earth that’s got terrors lurking around every corner. A mechanical beast comes after 9 almost immediately after he hits the ground running, but he’s quickly rescued by 2 (Martin Landau), a zipped-up burlap wiz who gives 9 a voice-box and some guidance through this horrifying landscape.
The clanking behemoth takes 2 away, but not before he’s able to guide 9 to safety in an abandoned church. There 9 meets the friendly 5 (John C. Reilly), the seemingly disturbed and obsessed 6 (Crispin Glover) and the tyrannical 1 (Christopher Plummer), who rules over his tiny fiefdom with the assistance of the hulking 8 (Fred Tatasciore).
In order to rescue 2, 9 and 5 eventually sneak out, meeting up with the adventurous 7 (Jennifer Connolly) and the non-speaking twins 3 and 4, who have become the repository of all remaining knowledge. 9 learns that mankind had created war machines which eventually became sentient and turned on their creators; by using an object given him by his creator, 9 accidentally reignites the deadly machines, and he must travel back to the creator’s lab to learn how these nine creatures are connected and how they can stop the machines from once again destroying the world.
Plot-wise, “9” is basically an amalgam of go-to-the-place-and-get-the-thing-and-kill-the-bad-guy storylines with some warmed-over platitudes about the evils of mechanization. But what Pamela Pettler’s screenplay (from a story by Acker, who expanded his short film “9” to feature length) lacks in originality is more than made up for the fact that these characters all eventually feel unique and fleshed-in; by the end, I found myself moved by the fate of these ragdolls. (The voice actors, particularly Wood and Plummer, help immensely in bringing these characters to life.)
Ultimately, the real star here is Acker’s eye for a world in shambles and the creatures, both heroic and fearsome, left to live in it. If Acker can marry his substantial visual acuity with a stronger sense of storytelling, he’s got the potential to be one of this generation’s great animators.
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