There was a huge missed opportunity for a Little Big Planet level here. Not only do the heroes of the post-apocalyptic animated film “9” look like adolescent sack boys, director Shane Acker’s vision – grown significantly since the original short film – is full of action set-pieces and great emotion. While Coheed and Cambria’s “Welcome Home” doesn’t really make it into the film outside its trailer, adrenaline junkies will find quite a few moments of sweeping excellence to keep their saliva glands moist. But is there enough for the rest of us?
The film opens…and promptly trips over itself as it tries to get far too much exposition out of the way as quickly as possible. In his first few moments of his life, 9, a miniature being of knitted burlap, awakens to life in a destroyed world, meets another of his kind, hides as said friend is captured, and is brought into a small community of similar creatures too frightened to rescue their captured comrade. All of this happens with little explanation to the larger world or our main protagonist. While successfully serving to keep an air of mystery about this existence, the lack of initial plot beyond obtuse narration and a brief stay with 9’s still mysterious creator, the opening of “9” feels rushed and ham-handed.
Unfortunately, the film’s issues with plot are not rehabilitated, merely redistributed. After the plot settles and we are introduced to the colony of angst Sack-people, motivations are developed and events ebb and flow with a general expertise for simple but evocative dialogue. But the overall plot suffers from a lack of grand motivation, understandable for the sack-people, but unappealing for the viewer, and the story peters out to an unsatisfactory and, once again, rushed ending that leaves the tale of “9” with a sour aftertaste.
Thankfully, while the general plot is on crutches throughout the film’s 80-minute run-time, the main strengths of Acker’s dusty dystopia shine vibrantly. Cherub-voiced Elijah Wood leads a wonderful voice cast as his 4,532nd nice guy persona, with other emotionally charged performances from a subdued John C. Reilly, a sharp and biting Christopher Plummer, and Crispin Glover playing his 4,532nd odd, mentally unnerving strange guy. All voices are pitched perfectly to their respective sack people, Reilly’s “5” a caring sensible type with Christopher Plummer’s “1” being a crotchety, weak-willed leader with a better redemption arch than most characters within the archetype receive.
But, as a matter of personal affection, not enough can be said for the silent side characters that dot the depressingly metal landscape. The intellectually curious twins “3” and “4” are adorable, eager types that communicate through movie film reel shudders and hold domain over an ancient store of books. The giant “8” is a loyal but gentle creature who secretly carries a magnet which he holds up to his head and receives a sort of malfunctioning high from when in private. Such entertaining detail is not limited to side characters, the rusted domain of “9” echoes with dangerous vistas and dark subtleties. Not many animated films feature this many grayed, decayed dead bodies…but for some reason the film is strengthened by this unforgiving look at a retro-tech style, post-machine rebellion future. Think Fallout without all the comedy.
What truly breathes life into the world, however, is the exceptional sound design, with nearly unnoticeable, minute details getting as much detail as the “roars” of the creatively designed beasts that hunger for the spirits within our sack-people (the monster getting the most fan reaction in my theater was a serpentine creature with a halved baby doll-head for a face and umbrella under-wires for fangs…which is awesome.) The orchestral soundtrack hits the appropriate emotional peaks and valleys without leaving a lasting impact, but with the environmental foley work and excellent voice work, it’s difficult to notice anything. The film also boasts the best use of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in history. Yes, including “The Wizard of Oz.”
But atmosphere and characterization is not what this film has been hyping itself for. The action sequences of “9” are less of the Hollywood style of up-close-and-personal conflict, and more of a dramatic peril mindset. Most set-pieces are revolving around the sack-people’s escape from one of the mechanical monstrosities out for them, with a sweeping and dynamic camera always finding the most appropriate and epic angle from which to show from. This flavor of action won’t spice as many palettes as the kid-friendly gravitas of a Pixar film, but it fits perfectly well with the desperation and decay that is featured so prominently in “9.”
Few films arrive in theaters with the strength of vision and audible detail as this. A flair for immediately emphatic and engrossing character design and complex sound design make “9” one of the most visually distinct and compelling animated films of the past few decades. The story’s failure to grip is a nit-pick sure to annoy only the most hard-hearted of viewers; the rest will be all too willing to be swept away in this derelict, demolished, heart-warming world.