Studio: Universal Studios
US Rating: PG-13 – Violence and Scary Images
Film Length: 80 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 – Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish and French
Release Date: December 29, 2009
Review Date: January 3, 2010
“When we awoke in this world, it was chaos. Man and machine attacked each other with fire and metal. I lead us here to sanctuary and here we waited out the war. Slowly, the world grew still until all that remained, was The Beast. Now we wait for it too to sleep.”
The Film: 3.5 out of 5
Shane Acker, a once animator with Weta Digital on the final Lord of the Rings film, created an imaginative short film as his college thesis about dolls existing in an apocalyptic world; silent and simple sentient dolls scavenging and fearing a monster stealing souls. His dark animated tale was nominated for the 2005 Best Animated Short Academy Award (losing to John Canemaker’s The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation) and piqued the imagination of both legendary playful-gothic filmmaker Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Beetlejuice), and Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov, who both served as producers for the larger scale adaptation of the intriguing short.
9 tells the tale of a world that has come to an end. Humanity has extinguished itself by an ultimate technological war machine turned on its creators. Cities and towns now lie in debris-strewn, hollowed out building landscapes with a sullen grey sky, and a muted palette of life’s colors. In the still of a room, a small life awakens – disoriented, silent – it scurries from the carnage of the half-destroyed building into a huge world. The small life is a doll with big round eyes, no voice, and a large number ‘9’ stenciled on his back. 9 is a burlap creation sewn by the loving hands of a scientist (who also imbued him with life) but with no preface for the world he has awoken into. As he sets out he stumbles across another of his kind, a doll with the number ‘2’ stenciled on his back. The elderly, scavenging 2 helps 9 repair his voice, but they are interrupted by a beast of bone and machine which snatches 2 up and, after a few failed attempts to snap up 9, runs away toward a concrete tower in the distance. 9 will soon encounter others that awoke before him; dolls alive and surviving in a desolate, treacherous landscape; hiding from the roaming beast. In a failed attempt to rescue 2, 9 inadvertently brings back to life the monstrous machine which wrought the end of man, and threatens the survival of the small band of dolls.
9 is an immediately interesting film. While conceptually we have bore witness to tales of post-apocalyptic survival a number of times – everything from The Road Warrior, to The Terminator and The Matrix has explored the fight for survival among the harshest existences, 9 works so long as it remains focused on the characters. Shane Acker’s feature length animated tale expands his noteworthy short, widening the view of the horrific state of the world, and providing a more rounded narrative for his fabric protagonist to follow. Visually, 9 is a feast despite recalling images we have seen time and again. For his vision, Acker presents the carnage of the end of humanity on the earth as a blend between World War I and II – reminiscent of the era-defying landscapes created for 2008’s The Mutant Chronicles (and even Pink Floyd’s The Wall), which presents the biggest issue for 9 to overcome – its overwhelming familiarity.
Acker’s premise and protagonists are refreshingly new elements in the carnage of the bombed-out dystopian future; however, the novelty of the characters and their small-sized quest to save their friends, and then their very lives, does not remain long enough to supplant the many familiar visual dynamics employed throughout. The Monstrous machine, for example, heavily echoes the sentries from the Matrix trilogy, and the beast that roams the landscape (and is a hybrid of bone and machine) could have leapt out of a cut scene from Burton’s Beetlejuice. Familiarity is not a failing, but a heavy-handed ode in a film which heaves its chest proud of its unique tale to tell suffers from such mirroring.
The voice talents used in the film are a wonderful blend. The softness and innate innocence of Elijah Wood is perfect for the titular hero, and fellow dolls voiced by Christopher Plummer (1) – the self-appointed leader, Martin Landau (2), an elderly veteran, John C. Reilly (5), a timid inventor, Crispin Glover (6) – an inventor and artist, Jennifer Connelly (7), a brave fighter, are each instilled with distinctness which truly serves the ragtag group of survivors.
9 is a brave film; it does not retreat from the bleakness and danger of its environment – nor does it betray the ideas from the short film – but it does fall short of being truly bold or original. There are moments of ill-timed, ill-placed comedy; distracting missteps ill-at-ease among the film’s more serious tone, which impede what the film seems to work hard to create – a rich, if dire, environment where hope and courage are rare . A couple of quite noticeable animation (continuity) goofs don’t help, but I can’t help feel that 9 deserves a wider audience than it found in theaters. It is not a typical animated tale – not in the slightest – and the affirming traits of friendship, courage, trust, and love find atypical frames to be presented. Acker may not have unfolded his tale into feature-length production with the confidence and imagination with which he embarked upon his short, but his first attempt at a feature length film is a worthy one, and deserving of 80 minutes of your life for you to experience for yourself, despite the concerns I have noted.
The Video: 3.5 out of 5
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, 9 is a dark story presented with a dark palette; brown-grays, muddy clay colors, and brooding graphite skies. The image is, as with the sound, good but not great. The computer-generated animation brings with it a high level of detail (as you might expect) and is represented well – and the film is dark, with plentiful shadows that take up much of what is on the screen. At times the dark is murky and the scene is filled too much with indistinct objects and characters not as clear as they should be. But what we are provided by Universal on this DVD is mostly in line with the texture of the story.
The Sound: 3.5 out of 5
9 comes with a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in English, Spanish and French. A solid sound design provides a good source to deliver in your home theater speakers, and to some extent it does just that. The scenes of war; bombs falling and bullets flying, while infrequent, give the surrounds more than a nod, but the real prize of the audio comes low in the spectrum, with healthy bass and deep rumbles which through audio, provide a sense of foreboding for the dolls. The center channel is free of issues with the dialogue, and though the audio doesn’t rise to great, it is solidly in the good camp.
The Extras: 3.5 out of 4
Deleted Scenes (7:24): Five deleted scenes, each in an unfinished, pre-visualization state, adds a little more dimension to scenes which remained in the final cut, but none that add anything that wasn’t ably covered already.
9 – The Original Short (10:34): The Oscar nominated short is presented in full with optional commentary by writer/director/animator Shane Acker and animation director Joe Ksander. This is the real gem among the special features.
The Long and Short Of It (16:28): Originally conceived of as a stop-motion animation film, Shane Acker’s 9’s evolution from short film to feature film is discussed with interviews from producers (including Tim Burton and Timur). Also included are behind-the-scenes looks at story meetings and storyboard reviews.
The Look of 9 (13:14): The visual design is discussed (affirming how WWI and WWI were used as influences) and how the film is a dark fairytale of a path our world did not, but could have, gone down.
Acting Out (4:54): Animators rely upon ‘acting out’ – physically moving to demonstrate how to move the characters, and how they rely upon mirrors at their desks to inform how they animate the rag dolls.
Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Shane Acker, animation director Joe Ksander, head of story Ryan O’Laughlin and editor Nick Kenway: A good, if clinical at times commentary with an ample amount of revealing details of how the final product was assembled. Some redundant commentary aside, this is a fairly good listen – especially for those captured by the film.
All in all, 9 is a mixed bag. While the characters are likeable, and the final act far more mystical than you might expect, the overall reliance upon familiar science-fiction elements (heavy derivation from the Terminator concept) take some air out of the experience. The animation style is fitting of the story being told, and the character designs, with an inherent innocence and sadness in their eyes, provide quite the source for the audience becoming emotionally invested. The story is briskly told (though its construct feels a little disjointed), and Acker clearly can be seen beginning to flex his visual story-telling muscles with the larger theatrical length canvass. The PG-13 rating may ward some parents off of this tale, which is a shame. While the world presented is decidedly bleak, the moral and meaning inherent in the tale are worthy of children much younger – but perhaps the bleakness and scares are more than enough to outweigh that. My recommendation is for unsure parents to pre-watch (always a good idea) – for all others, despite my misgivings, I recommend at least renting 9.
Overall Score 3.5 out of 5