‘9’ is the curious tale of nine ‘Halloween Sackboy’ style characters in a post-apocalyptic landscape fighting for their survival. The full-length feature début from Shane Acker, it treads interesting water between child and adult audience failing to fully connect with either side. Produced by Tim Burton, and partly written by the woman behind The Corpse Bride it shows a lot of promise, but sadly doesn’t match it’s stunning visual aesthetic with a story that hits home.
9 finds himself waking up in a world where humanity has lost the war against machines. A brutal battle of global proportions has left the earth a scorched remnant of itself with rubble and debris lying all over. The land now harsh and feral has become a hunting ground for the mechanical monstrosities left whom, as 9 quickly finds out, are roaming the landscape looking for any signs of life. It’s a sobering and downtrodden introduction. Within the first 15 minutes a character is brutally savaged and carried away by one of the animalistic terminator machines. Certainly this seems, this is a movie not for kids.
Cue a further 15 minutes, when 9 comes into contact with more of his kind. They are a rag tag bunch, not surprising given their material construction, but are comprised of the same type of character stereotypes you could find in many a children fable from Pixar or Disney (I refer to them individually in terms of more classic and modern styles). The enforcer, the ‘crazy’, the sidekick and the wise old sage, each is present and correct in the patchwork band of brothers and so it falls to the title character to take up the mantle of hero and propel the story onward.
The story itself is not a wholly original one. The apocalyptic machine empire arc has been done many times, from The Matrix to Terminator and with 9 seeming to take a certain aesthetic leaning from the latter it leaves the piece requiring something special to stand it apart. Now of course our protagonists are not the usual and this does lend the film an immediate ornate appeal, but appearance can only carry you so far. It was based on the short film (just over 10 mins) of the same name, that beautiful told a story without any dialogue and it was this short that caught Tim Burton’s attention and provided the chance to stretch it out into a full length 70+ minute feature. Unfortunately ‘stretched’ all too perfectly applies.
The story has been expanded, and the dialogue added, and while it moves things along fair enough it feels diluted and lacking spark. The characters are all fine and there is a connection there to them, but sometimes it fails to go beyond being slightly upset that the cute (if a little ragged) little guys are, to be honest, harshly and brutally dispatched by their machine adversaries. The first half of this movie is very engaging as our hero (acceptedly voiced by Elijah Woods) works his way through the landscape meeting the various members of cast (featuring the voices of Jennifer Connelly, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover & John C. Reilly) as well as the frighting beasts inhabiting their desolate world. We begin to get a scope for the plot, the war between man and machine, the fact that their is something special about 9, and perhaps all the Sackboy characters, why are they numbered so and what is their connection to the machine empire that is hounding them? You begin to feel like this could be a tale that will bring something new to the early sense of deja vu and attempt to answer some deep questions about the nature of what it is to be man, sadly though, for all it poses it’s frankly bizarre and hopelessly upbeat ending leaves you feeling cheated and undermines some of the good work that came before.
There are two main things I think stopped this being a classic, it’s schizophrenic mindset of who it wants to appeal to and lack of cohesive story. The breathtaking animation (easily as good as anything produced by Pixar), quirky characters, exciting set pieces and happy ending will appeal to the children, but it’s dark subject matter, downright freaky, at times scary roaming monsters and brutal death scenes are clearly not for the same. Couple this with a story that while watery, still alludes to be something much more complex and in depth than average fair and you have something I think is ultimately more suited for the teen to adult market. Kids will still get a lot out of ‘9’ but I feel if it had tailored itself more it would ultimately have been a better movie.
Still ‘9’ is a good movie, and I’d recommend it to my age group. Some may find themselves feeling let down by the end, but I’d imagine the upbeat ending will suit many not looking for a challenge from their cinema. It’s a beautifully rendered and animated piece and some of the character design is easily the best of the year. Unfortunately, both characters and story are underwritten, a symptom of turning 10 mins into 70, but with Tim Burton producing it’s found a pretty decent fit. With better writing and a little more character, Acker will be producing the first film that really gives Pixar a run for it’s money.