"9" began life in 2005 as an 11-minute, dialogue-free animated short that racked up an Academy Award nomination. In that format, with the story being told simply through the images and the characters' body language, it packed an impressive punch. In adapting it to feature length, however, director Shane Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler (2006's "Monster House
") have bitten off more than they can chew, failing to comfortably expand the material. Padded to the point of tedium even at an anemic 79-minute running time, the film is dour, dreary, humorless, and so repetitively indistinguishable in its onslaught of action that most of it sort of blends together like a dream you had a week ago and can no longer remember much about. It's just as well; there is precious little worth making a long-term memory of.
Set in an alternate, post-apocalyptic version of what can most accurately be deciphered as the 1940s, a patchwork doll named 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) is enlivened with a soul, waking up shortly after his inventor has dropped dead. Outside, the sky looms gray and foreboding over a ramshackle European cityscape, all human life wiped out by giant mechanical creatures gone berserk. There are eight other dolls like himself, but 9 takes it upon himself to lead the search for the source of their life force while fending off the remaining malevolent robots lurking about. If they succeed, they may be able to ensure the survival of civilization's legacy.
Since "9" was already in production when 2008's "Wall-E
" was released, it cannot be accused of plagiarism. Nevertheless, the two films are strikingly similar in a lot of ways. Both center on non-human, man-made beings who are left alone on earth after the population has died out or evacuated. Both are named after their title character. Both protagonists even discover signs of a world that no longer exists through music; for Wall-E, he becomes enamored with "Hello, Dolly!" and for 9 and his compadres, they stumble upon Judy Garland's "Somewhere over the Rainbow" via a record player. The difference is in their treatments. Wall-E may have been a robot who could barely speak, but he was endearing, poignant, and the feelings he formed for Eve were as romantic as any live-action love story in recent years. The planet on which he existed may have been dark, gloomy, and nearly beyond repair, but there was vitality to the filmmaking and the core relationship at the story's center. In "9," the characters are virtually without personality, the friendships 9 forms with engineer 5 (John C. Reilly) and warrior 7 (Jennifer Connelly), among others, are afterthoughts, and the plot basically consists of 8-inch dolls fighting off big robotic animals. With no one to connect with or care about and the consequential emotional content nonexistent, the movie becomes the animated equivalent of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
" a cavalcade of thrashing metal at the service of nothing.
The computer-generated animation is commendablethere is a lovely shot of the moon glowing upon a statue-filled courtyardbut most of the sights are repeated over and over. There are only so many bricks, rubble and debris one can handle before it grows visually boring, as well. Director Shane Acker is a talent within the animation field, no doubt, but he shows no reason to believe he is prepared for the big screen. Giving the characters voices (a change from his original short) is useless since no one has anything memorable or worthwhile to utter. Instead of developing the characters through their verbal interactions, most of the talk is straightforward businesslike chatter, usually shouted as they run from encroaching mechanical beasts. It is every bit as impersonal and dull as it sounds.
"9" liberally borrows from superior motion pictures of the pastevery post-apocalyptic drama, take your pick, as well as 1990's "Edward Scissorhands" in its portrayal of a scientist passing away just as he completes his inventionand comes up with few, if any, ideas one could call original. Too self-serious and mopey to entice children and too obscure and flatly conceived to interest adults, the PG-13-rated "9" ranks down there with "Battle for Terra
" as the year's weakest animated venture. At least "Battle for Terra
" had a few visionary glimpses in its third act; this film doesn't even have that. Morose, derivative, and about as charming and lively as a long-buried skeleton, "9" cannot even present a good argument for why the world depicted is worth saving. If everyone is going to be as deadly boring as these dolls, perhaps it would be best to throw in the towel.