I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that there has been an explosion of animation in the last, oh, decade or so. Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have been flexing their box-office muscles year after year, especially Pixar with its films that have gained notoriety for being just as entertaining for kids and adults alike. Still, while I have enjoyed the films that Pixar and DWA have put out during their impressive runs, I don’t necessarily go gaga every time they put out a new flick because, despite their tendencies to cater to adults, these are still mainly kids flicks, heartwarming as they may be. But, finally, an animated film has come forth that proves animation can succeed while strictly catering to the teenage-and-up crowd with 9, a remarkably stunning piece of work that very well could change the face of animation in ways that Pixar revolutionized the genre.
This is probably one of the only animated films that parents might need to find a babysitter to go see, because this film is NOT for kids, folks. The fact that this is only the third completely computer-generated film to receive a PG-13 rating (behind Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within and Beowulf), speaks for itself. Kids will likely be scared, won’t find anything funny and will likely have nightmares of giant robotic cats snatching them up in their sleep. No, this is an adult story about a post-apocalyptic world where the humans are all gone and all that are left are these little creations (unofficially dubbed “stitchpunks”), who were created by a mad scientist on the brink of humanity’s extinction when the artificial-intelligence robots they created turned against us. These little “stitchpunks” aren’t alone in this wasteland environment, though, as crude, robotic animals scour the landscape for these creatures, hunting them down constantly, as the “stitchpunks” must be constantly wary of their much much larger enemy.
The story starts when 9 (Elijah Wood) wakes up in the long-abandoned home of his scientist creator (Allen Oppenheimer). Naturally, he’s unsure of where and what he even is, and as he surveys his surroundings, he sees another like him, 2 (Martin Landau), an elderly inventor who is out on this desolate wasteland looking for more materials for his inventions – against the orders of his group’s leader, 1 (Christopher Plummer). Suddenly, the robo-cat attacks and takes 2, with him, with 9 barely able to escape. After 9 is found by 5 (John C. Reilly), he’s introduced to the rest of what’s left of the group – 1, 3 and 4, who are researchers of some kind with the ability to project footage through their glass eyes, 5, 6 (Crispin Glover), the group’s oddball visionary who keeps drawing these creepy illustrations, 7 (Jennifer Connelly), the warrior princess of the group with advanced fighting and survival techniques (when I first saw her on screen I thought of Storm Shadow for some reason…) and 8 (Fred Tatasciore), the huge (by their standards) bodyguard of 1. After the robo-cat finds their secret lair, the group must decide whether to follow the bravery of the new guy 9 or stick with their leader 1, and I was blown away every single minute of this story.
The only thing I didn’t like about this movie is I wanted more, more and then some more. The film is based off director Shane Acker’s 2004 short film, which earned him a Student Academy Award and a regular Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short. This feature-length film is likely due to a response similar to mine – with people wanting more, more and MORE of this intricate and fascinating world that Acker created. Yet, still, while we get a healthier dose of this world with the 79-minute film, I still would’ve loved to see 20 minutes more (do the math…) from Acker, who received a story credit on Pamela Pettler’s script and makes his feature directorial debut here. While the story definitely works as a 79-minute feature, I constantly got the feeling that this film was just scratching the surface of Acker’s amazing world, although, if audiences react the way I hope they’ll react, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more come out of this incredible film.
What’s also refreshing here is, since this is a more mature animated film, we get much more mature animated voice actors. Acker had the foresight to go after some extremely accomplished names here in his voice cast, most of whom haven’t done hardly any voice-over work, with some never doing it before. Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly are all fantastic here as their numerals and the lone voice-over veteran, Fred Tatasciore (a former UCLA classmate of Acker) is great as the big lug of the group, 8. The thing that is so wonderful about casting all of these actors, none of whom are known for their vocal chops in the recording booth, is that the level of exaggeration in these voices is pretty much eliminated. These characters talk like humans talks – as they were created in the vein of humans – and, what’s even better is the level of animation to portray humanistic traits ups the ante even further. You can see actual traits and mannerisms of these actors (Christopher Plummer’s smirk, most noticeably to me) in their “stitchpunks” and it was quite a beauty to behold. It’s one thing to do mo-cap and slap a bunch of dots on someone’s face and then photorealize it in post, but it’s quite another to make these totally man-made things and intricately show us the human qualities of the voice actors who are lending their voice. The level of detail in this film is truly incredible and, while we have many stars in the cast of this film, the true star of the film is director Shane Acker.
Acker, working with Pamela Pettler’s wonderful screenplay (despite that I wanted MORE of it), shows us the same visual brilliance he did in the short, but with a little help from some friends of that short who were so blown away by that 11-minute film they just had to help make this a feature. Directors Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov both serve as producers here, and while you can certainly see some bits of their influence in the film, this is certainly Acker’s show, and he doesn’t disappoint one single bit. Everything from these characters interacting with each other to these wonderfully unique piecemeal robots to this world itself, where these 8-inch characters must find a way to survive off the scraps humanity left behind, it’s utterly compelling from both a mental and visual standpoint. Welcome to the big time, Shane Acker. You’ve certainly earned it with this breathtaking feature film debut.
9 is a movie about humanity told through man-made creatures that roam the earth after humanity’s time ran out. It’s a thought-provoking visual marvel of a film that finally shows us a way to make a dramatic animated film. We may have a new animation powerhouse on our hands with Focus Features, actually, after this is only their second animated film they’ve released, with this year’s stop-motion film Coraline being the other. Watch out Pixar and DWA… If I could give this film 9 stars out of 5, I certainly would, because it’s done something that no animated film has been able to do since the advent of Pixar: it out-Pixar’s Pixar.