9 (2009)

In 9, things are awakened in a postapocalyptic world. Things made by humans, but not human. Things alive, or not alive, depending on what that means, but ensouled perhaps, and given the best qualities of the men who made them, and also the worst.

The newest of these things -- creatures? robots? mecha? little people? -- is 9, who awakens into a nightmarish world in which everything built by humans is in ruins, and the humans are all gone. In time, the calamity that destroyed the world is revealed, but 9, directed by Shane Acker, and based on his Academy Award-nominated short animated film of the same name, takes its time explaining just what's going on in the ruined world 9 stumbles into on his new little legs.

9 seems to have been stitched together out of scraps of burlap and bits of machinery. He finds others like him -- they are very small, with soft, ragdoll bodies, articulated metal hands and eyes made from camera lenses. The apertures widen and narrow with little clicks and clinks, giving 9 and his companions wonderfully expressive faces. The animation is beautifully detailed, full of heaps of scraps and shards of bent and twisted metal and crumbling buildings, broken statues, rose windows -- civilization once flourished here, in the time before 9. Now, dust motes drift silently down on what is left.

9 and his companions -- also known by their numbers, which apparently indicate the order of their creation -- are not alone in the world. They are menaced by a machine they call "The Beast," which hunts and kills them for reasons they do not understand. 9 takes its time explaining that too, allowing the audience to discover answers slowly, along with 9. Acker's very compact short film told the same story, essentially, in ten minutes, and without dialogue. 9 adds more characters, and gives voices to the stalwart little ragmen. The movie also expands to 79 minutes by adding quite a lot of fairly scary action sequences (too scary for young kids, nicely challenging for older kids), and a bit more mystical, spiritual fluff 'n stuff at the end. It would be good if the additional hour added a great deal of substance to 9, but it doesn't especially. It touches on themes familiar in science fiction: the postapocalyptic world, totalitarianism, and sentient machines. It touches on these themes, or points towards them without really having very much to say about them. Acker co-wrote the script with Pamela Pettler, and the characters are not exactly raconteurs, which may just be a function of the somewhat infantile state of being for 9 and company. Their quest is partly metaphysical -- they don't know who or what they are, or why they were created. Each of them has a distinctive personality and character -- some are timid, some are bold, some are loyal, some are ruthless -- they each embody different aspects of humankind in general, which means they do a lot of squabbling, as the brave exhort the cowardly, and the noble scold the ignoble, and the paternalistic 1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer), the oldest of the ragmen, learns a thing or two from that rash, freethinking whippersnapper 9 (Elijah Wood).

Tim Burton produced 9, and the movie has the dark and vaguely gothic look familiar to Burton films. 9 is digitally animated, but the design of the characters and backgrounds has the depth, richness and tactile look of the traditional stop motion animation that Burton and his frequent collaborator Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) are known for. The animation in 9 is really splendid, beautiful, and lively, creating a vivid sense of place, with imaginatively conceived, original, and intriguingly empathetic characters. All that's lacking is a story as good as the rest of the movie's elements.