"Are audiences ready for this startling departure from traditional animation and happier plot lines?"
Southern author Flannery O'Connor once said of one of her characters, "She would have been a good woman if there was someone there to shoot her every day of her life." So then, would this have been a good film, had there been someone there to say "No" every day of production? 9 director Shane Acker has been working on this story for over 10 years, and has clearly envisioned a complex future in a barren world filled with ruthless machines and plucky creatures. But are audiences ready for this startling departure from traditional animation and happier plot lines?
The character of 9 (Elijah Wood) is rudely awakened in a deserted world unfamiliar to him, knowing nothing of his origin and filled with questions. When he finds others of his kind, they must band together to defeat the machines leftover from endless wars with the humans, as these violent machines wish to hunt them to extinction. These creations are hard to describe, carefully stitched together puppet-like dolls that have been given the power of life through a mysterious transference from the old scientist who so carefully made them. There are nine of these small entities, and without giving too much away, each is unique and possesses skills which work best when they are acting as a united force. Jennifer Connelly voices 7, who is a fearless fighter and a great ally to 9 in his quest to defeat the machines, and these machines are terrifying. Straight out of the mind of a demented soul raised on Tim Burton (who also produced 9) comes the snake-like Seamstress, prowling cat-like machines, and other assorted frightening creatures bent on eliminating the little survivors.
The plot is simplistic, and so describing any of it gives away far too much. This simplicity allows the visuals to take center stage, and while they are stunning they remain strangely commonplace, far too familiar for a post-apocalyptic world. The tiny characters are distinctive, differing widely in material used, with the oldest, 1, being the plainest, made out of rough materials, and 9, as the newest, the most cleverly constructed. Aside from these characters, the film is brimming with terrifying realizations of familiar concepts. Different ancient philosophical themes and creatures make appearances, though they've been updated for modern day minds. With a strong Platonic streak running throughout, as the nine characters are at their best when working together, it is evident that Shane Acker has done his homework, meticulously researching and developing these characters. Too bad it's not more apparent while watching the film itself. While a degree in Greek mythology is not necessary to enjoy the film, and any Tim Burton enthusiast will likely find a great deal to love, it is the fact that Acker has so carefully modeled his characters and figures on ancient forms that elevates the film from mere scare-fest to thoughtfully constructed and interesting. There are moments of real anguish and terror, but it's strangely hard to care about a world in which human beings have been eradicated. One major distraction is the pacing, which holds scenes a few seconds longer than necessary, and another is the lack of dialogue. Yes, there's speaking in the film, but much of the emotion and action is intentionally conveyed through body language or music, and while that is relatively unusual, it comes across as awkward.
Another problem is that animation, at least in America, is mainly targeted toward children, as in the case of Pixar or Disney. While this may be changing and is already accepted in other countries, many adults will likely shy away from this film. And that is ultimately why it will fail. The film has no audience; 9 is far too scary for most children and is built upon a premise unlikely to draw adult viewers out. Many of the films failings can be explained away as the first efforts of a promising director who clearly understands his story. Now if only the rest of us could catch his vision.