People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, January 29, 2010
  DVD Review: 9
9 is an awesome little animated adventure film (not to be confused with the star-studded musical Nine, which doesn’t seem to be getting the Oscar buzz it was clearly constructed to generate) that packs more originality and verve into its opening 10 minutes than most animated movies do in 90 minutes (I’m referring specifically to the ones involving talking animals and/or ogres). There’s a singularity of vision on display in 9 that’s rare enough in movies in general these days, let alone children’s animation.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape after a war with self-aware machines has wiped virtually all organic life from the world. But life continues in the ruins, even if it’s not made of flesh and blood; a handful of strange little living dolls is scraping out an existence, dodging larger, ferocious mechanical predators. It’s into this world that 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) wakes up with no memories, and soon finds himself reunited with his burlap brethren. 9 ends up accidentally waking up the sinister machine intelligence that started the war, putting his new friends in danger, he takes it upon himself to shut it down once more, and ends up uncovering the origins of himself and his kind in the process.

Watching 9 again for this DVD review (I reviewed it in theatres as well, check out my thoughts here), I was half-tempted to go back and replace Up on my best of 2009 list with writer/director Shane Acker’s quirky little doll-centric fantasy tale. As much as the critic in me feels that Up is a better film objectively, I found 9 more exciting and fun to watch. With Up I felt like I was more appreciating the adventure than I was really getting into it; 9 actually had me jumping and moving around like I do when I’m really into an action movie (if you’ve ever noticed how some people jerk around unconsciously while playing video games, I do that with movies sometimes [I also do it with video games]). And none of this is a knock against Up, which is a wonderful movie that’s as emotionally affecting as 90% of live-action films released in any given year, and that’s something I can’t say for 9. But 9 really turned my action/geek crank, with its unique look and the wonderfully original world Acker and his team have created. Usually when I say positive things about an animat9, 7 and 2 in the thick of ited kids’ movie, it’s in the context of the movie not really being my thing personally, but when I say 9 is a genuinely exciting action-adventure movie, I mean it in the sense that it’s actually better than a lot of action movies aimed at more grown-up audiences.

There’s a darkness to 9 that will intrigue a lot of older kids, but some of the imagery can be somewhat unsettling (genuinely scary monsters, depictions of war and the resulting apocalypse, etc.) If you don’t relish the thought of explaining to a 5-year-old the concept of evil machines releasing a toxin that wipes out all living things on Earth, maybe wait a few years before watching 9 with them. That said, while 9 does have considerably more edge to it than, say, Monsters vs. Aliens, it’s really not as bleak as its post-apocalyptic setting would suggest. The themes of friendship and heroism and personal responsibility resonate with all audiences, and the film manages to be cute and charming when it needs to be without being cloying or saccharine.

The scale of 9, while also providing lots of opportunities for cool little innovative design gags (sewing needles and kitchen knives used as swords, fishing lines used as grappling hooks, broken dolls’ faces atop terrifying mechanical apparitions), also makes our heroes running across a desk into an action sequence, and crossing the street into a Tolkien-esque adventure.

The voice acting in 9 is also quite solid. Casting actors like Wood, John C. Reilly, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover and Christopher Plummer rather than big-name celebrities gives the performances an authenticity that doesn’t keep pulling you out of the movie because it’s clearly Will Smith or Jack Black doing the talking. Reilly in particular is great, making 2 sort 'Oh. Great.'of skittish and jumpy, but he never comes across a coward. Within a few minutes of his introduction, 2 is set up as 9’s best friend in the group, and the viewer never questions it.

Even after multiple viewings, I’m still quite impressed with 9. Director Shane Acker, who expanded a short film he made as a student (which earned him an Oscar nomination in 2005) for his feature debut, is the most unique and interesting new voice in American animation to come along in a long time. If 9 is any indication of what this guy is capable of, his will be a career to watch. 9 is a very cool little flick that I suspect will find an audience as a cult classic on video (the Dark Crystal of this generation, perhaps?), and I recommend it highly.



It’s always nice when a great movie gets a great DVD, and I’m happy to report that that’s the case with 9. When I saw the movie in theatres last year, I immediately wanted to know more about the world and the people who created it, and this DVD does a great job of exploring both. Writer/director Shane Acker provides commentary alongside animation director Joe Ksander, head of story Ryan O’Loughlin and editor Nick Kenway, and it’s lively and informative. These guys all know movies and have a real grasp of storytelling, and it really comes across. Acker himself is charming and smart, and manages to pepper the track with references to classic films he was trying to pay homage to without coming across as pretentious. And 9 has such a specific vision that it’s a treat getting to listen to the guy who’s vision it is discuss it.

Also included is a mini-documentary on the production of the film, a featurette on the character animation process, as well as Acker’s original short (which is very cool on its own), with optional commentary.

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