I love animation, and I’ve used this space more than once in the past to complain that, for all the advances in computer animation technology over the past decade or so, Hollywood seems to be able to do little else with it than use it to make movies about talking animals for kids. It’s a reason that, aside from the occasional Pixar movie like The Incredibles or a genuine aberration like Beowulf, I don’t bother with big animated movies. Which is one of the reasons I enjoyed 9 as much as I did.
9 was produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov (the crazy Russian who made Wanted and the totally insane Nightwatch and Daywatch), and it’s the directorial debut of former WETA Digital animator (the Lord of the Rings people) Shane Acker. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity has been totally wiped out by a war with machines (sort of like The Matrix, but the machines are decidedly more analogue), and follows 9, a living, stitched-together doll a few inches in height who wakes up in a mysterious workshop with no memory of who he is or the world around him. 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) eventually finds several other doll-creatures, all of whom are similarly numbered. He soon accidentally reactivates the mechanical brain that started the war with humanity, and embarks on a quest to redeem himself, save his new friends and solve the mystery of his very existence.
If you’re thinking that sounds like pretty heady stuff for a digitally-animated movie aimed at younger audiences, it is. 9 never talks down to the audience or traffics in fart humor or pop-culture references, but that doesn’t mean it’ll fly over kids’ heads. It does deal with some pretty dark themes, and there’s some imagery in there that’s probably too scary for very young children, but 9 reminded me, in all the best ways, of beloved movies from my own childhood like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. All fairy tales have darkness to them, and 9 is no different.
The thing I loved the most about 9 was its look and feel. It really felt like a Tim Burton movie, not because it’s filled with superficial goth trappings, but rather because it has such a unique visual aesthetic and sense of design. But make no mistake, this is Acker’s show all the way. There’s such a clarity of vision on display, from the oversized world the characters inhabit, where crossing a city block is an epic quest, to the heavily industrial, vaguely facist/Nazi vibe of human civilization glimpsed in the flashbacks, that seems absent from the majority of other animated movies being released today.
The designs, especially of the twisted monsters the evil machine-brain sends after the heroes, are delightfully insane, like a cloth cobra with a twisted doll’s face beneath its "hood," or a bird of prey made of shear blades and a tattered old flag. The animation itself is also wonderfully detailed, with just about every texture or fabric looking almost photo-real, from the rough burlap of 9 to the softer, smoother look of the warrior-woman, 7 (Jennifer Connelly). I fell in love with little details like the tools and weapons the tiny characters use, like fishhooks and kitchen knives and needles, or how all the characters’ eyes are camera shutters and the way Acker uses them to show emotion.
If Burton’s partner in crime, Timur Bekmambetov, has a stamp on the movie, it’s in the action scenes. Granted, nobody in 9 curves bullets or drives a car up the side of a building, but watching 7 take down freaky mechanical monstrosities is a blast, and the action has a similar sense of speed found in Bekmambetov’s directorial efforts.
But as much as I enjoyed the darker aspects of the story and the technical details, the story and characters of 9 also work quite well. As much as I appreciated the lack of toilet humor, that’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had. The comic relief characters are a pair of twins who can’t talk but instead use their eyes as movie projectors; they’re cute and funny without being cloying, and Michael Bay and company could have taken some pointers when they were crafting their own ill-advised team of comic-relief twins in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Acker also manages to inject the story with emotion without slowing down the pace, and because 9 himself is essentially responsible for the mess the characters find themselves in, his arc has as much to do with redemption as it does the traditional hero’s journey.
Overall I was very impressed with 9. It’s a really unique movie with a real sense of style to it, which seems rare these days for what’s still basically a kid’s movie. It’s probably too much for very young audiences to handle (unless you relish answering post-movie questions about concepts like the end of human civilization), but it’s quite an excellent little film. Highly recommended.
Labels: animation, Movie review