3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
The majority of films are driven toward, and at least somewhat dependent upon, a climactic plot twist that raises the stakes and brings greater depth and perspective to the events that precede it. “9,” an animated, post-apocalyptic fantasy-adventure directed and co-written by Shane Acker (who expands his 2005 Oscar-nominated short of the same name), has such a twist, but its effect is of little use. What's revealed doesn't just raise the stakes, it finally establishes them, after most of the movie has already passed. Prior to the revelation (which brings to light some heady stuff, indeed), we tag along with a gaggle of very thinly-written characters as they struggle through circumstances that only seem dire within the moments in which they're unfolding. The higher purpose is virtually nowhere in sight, the greater good doesn't appear to be all that great, and by the time we're privy to both, Acker no longer has our attention. It's a good thing his movie is a marvel to behold.
No doubt influenced by the macabre whimsy of Tim Burton (who, along with “Wanted” director Timur Bekmambetov, produced the picture), Acker inhabits a desolate, debris-ridden, post-war landscape with creatures who'd fit right in with Edward Scissorhands and Jack Skellington. Following an opening that's directly reminiscent of another Burton-esque creation (this year's “Coraline,” which also kicked off with a pair of hands carefully constructing a tattered-looking doll), we meet our hero, 9, a ragged amalgamation of a burlap sack and spare parts who awakens in the ransacked study of a crumbling, battle-ravaged residence. Carrying a curious talisman that he found beside him and stashed in a zipper pouch within his chest, 9 – who's ably voiced by Elijah Wood and whose number/name is etched on his back – ventures out into a world that looks like Ground Zero stretched as far as the eye can see. Stumbling over heaps of rubble, incinerated vehicles and the occasional human corpse, 9 soon comes in contact with another being like himself: 2 (voiced by Martin Landau), an inquisitive explorer who's similarly branded and has the same binocular-like eyes. Almost immediately, the pair is attacked by a cat-like beast made of bones and machinery that kidnaps 2, steals the talisman and darts off into the bleak horizon.
Once introduced to the evils of this world, 9 quickly falls in with the rest of his kind, who've been evading threats like the cat-beast since the earth fell to ruin. So typical are these characters that the numbers-as-names identification system is perfectly apt. Bearing the kingly accessories of cape, crown and staff, 1 (voiced with commanding coarseness by Christopher Plummer) is the group's stubborn, conservative leader who frowns on free-thinking; 6 (voiced by go-to weirdo Crispin Glover) is the resident nutjob whose feverish, ominous doodles will come in handy later; 8 (voiced by ubiquitous voice actor Fred Tatasciore) is 1's dim-witted, muscle-bound lug of an assistant; and 5 (voiced rather lazily by John C. Reilly) is the benevolent, yet easily-intimidated worrywart who eventually joins the noble and courageous 9 in attempting to rescue 2. Before long we also encounter 7 (voiced with little distinction by Jennifer Connelly), an adventurous feminist type who's separated herself from the rest along with the childlike, precocious twins, 3 and 4. Using the now-retrieved talisman, 9 unwittingly elevates the danger for everyone by awakening a super-machine that builds other killer machines and, as we discover, was responsible for the destruction of humanity.
Giving us only brief, sporadic tidbits of the backstory (which involves the familiar matter of artificial intelligence turning on its maker), “9” asks that we accept and be patient with this ragtag ennead's existential conundrum. Questions of why or how they exist are only slightly addressed by 9 and company because they're all faced with other, more pressing dilemmas. But from the standpoint of the audience, the characters are so one-dimensional that we cannot invest ourselves in them and only them. In order to feel the urgency of their conflicts (which for a long time seem to take place in a minuscule microcosm), we need that higher purpose, that greater good, as a foundation. Our endurance, curiosity and suspension of disbelief are swiftly trumped by our desire for clarity and connection, and, like 1, who repeatedly insists that 9 not ask so many questions, the movie is slow to oblige. Such is a fundamental flaw in the mechanics of Acker and co-writer Pamela Pettler's (“Corpse Bride”) already sub-par script. “9” is presented like a backwards banquet: we're served the meal before the appetizer, and when at last the first course arrives, we're full and ready for our check.
Though they are most certainly what distracts the narrative from being all that it could have been (Acker, after all, is not without some powerful and profound ideas), the visuals of “9” are superbly rendered. The protagonists, who are each given their own discernible traits, are an imaginative mishmash of the charming and the bizarre – they're like the distant, bedraggled cousins of WALL-E. The villains – which, in addition to the cat-beast, include a winged, bat-like monstrosity composed mostly of blades, and a frightening, caterpillar-type creature that slithers and shrieks – are even more impressive, calling to mind the misfit playthings of “Toy Story” crossed with the dreaded machines from “The Matrix.” The action is spectacular, and the editing and CGI are both tack-sharp. But a viewer can't live by eye candy alone, and, after a weak and non-redemptive conclusion, we leave wishing that the storytelling had been as inspired as the imagery.