Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: "9"

"9" is a cyberpunk fantasia disguised as an animated children's movie. It's also one of the boldest and most original films of 2009.

And along with "District 9," it's the second movie to come out in the last month based on a short film by an unknown director that was expanded to feature length with the support of an established filmmaker (and with the numeral 9 in the title, to boot). In this case, Tim Burton liked the 2005 Oscar-nominated short film by Shane Acker so much, he signed on as a producer for a full-size "9."

The world Acker has created -- along with screenwriter Pamela Pettler and an army of computer animators -- is a dystopian apocalypse, in which all of mankind has been wiped out by war. The only critters moving about are these funny-looking puppet creatures with big, mechanical eyes and a slapdash of zippers and buttons holding their burlap torsos together.

These are stitchpunks (though they're never named as such), the last remnant of humanity, created by a dying scientist with a terrible burden to bear.

Even though we're used to being dazzled by each new CG animation feature, the textures and tactile quality of "9" really jump out at you. Despite having no names, only numbers, the stitchpunks are readily distinguished from one another due to the animators' minute attention to detail.

As the story opens, 9 (voice of Elijah Wood), the newest of his kind, awakens in the dead scientist's laboratory. He finds a strange device, and takes it with him as he ventures out into the urban wasteland. (The setting seems to be WWII-era London, or what's left of it.)

There he encounters 2 (Martin Landau), an old tinkerer who fixes 9's voice transmitter so he can talk. But they're attacked by a fearsome mechanical feline that makes off with 2 and the scientist's totem.

In short order, 9 encounters the rest of his kind. 5 (John C. Reilly) is one-eyed and friendly, while 8 is a lumbering bully who barely speaks. There's also 6 (Crispin Glover, who also sings a song for the soundtrack), the half-crazed oracle; 3 and 4, the symbiotic twins who compile lost human knowledge; and 7 (Jennifer Connelly), the heroic knight-errant of the bunch.

Leading them, ostensibly, is 1 (Christopher Plummer), though he seems more interested in hiding from the threatening machines than challenging them.

I don't want to reveal more, since part of the film's delight is discovering the frightening implications of the movie's themes, and what they say about humanity.

If there's a criticism to be leveled, it's that the opening 20 minutes or so feels rushed, as if it was edited to introduce the action scenes as quickly as possible so younger audience members wouldn't grow bored. Although "9" is perfectly appropriate for older children (say, 7 and up), I am certain adults will find it most satisfying as a film-going experience.

After watching this movie, I was astonished to learn that it has been given a PG-13 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. The mild depictions of violence are wholly undeserving of anything harsher than a PG.

Perhaps it's the dark tone and post-apocalyptic setting that negatively affected the ratings board. But these are also integral parts of what makes "9" the best animated film so far this year.

3.5 stars

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