We are spoiled when it comes to the current crop of animated films. Pixar continues to churn out gem after gem, Tim Burton occasionally rears his frazzled head with a stop-motion masterpiece, and everyone from Walt Disney to Dreamworks has followed suit, with even Wes Anderson pitching in. I hope the kids realise how good they have it, cause back in my day… well, you know the rest.
Which is what makes the appearance of 9 so interesting. Much more than a me-too animated release, it showcases a refreshing new talent with Shane Acker. Taking a cue from both the offbeat and dark world of Tim Burton, as well as the obsessive polish of Pixar, he has fused the two together with impressive results
The story of 9 begins with a small rag-doll creature marked with the number "9" (voiced by Elijah Wood) both waking up and coming to life in a desolate, post-apocalyptic world that is void of natural life. As his journey unfolds, he meets the other members of his kind – numbers 1 through 8 (voiced by Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly and others) – and slowly comes to find out how they were created, and what happened to the rest of the world. The dolls' creator was a great inventor who developed an autonomous machine capable of both labor and creating new machines. But when it fell into the wrong hands (of course it did, why wouldn't it?), the corrupt will imposed on the machines eventually caused them to rebel and begin destroying life. Near the end of his own life, the inventor – distraught at the ruin from his creation – made these nine dolls to carry on after humanity.
It's an interesting idea, but somehow the plot instead devolves more into "small things must destroy big enemy." It goes about it in an interesting way, but that's more or less the depth of it. It's fortunate that the world itself goes a long way towards making that nugget of a plot feel much more grand. The setting is very moody and dark, and amazingly rich with detail. The design of the world has a very salvaged, almost steampunk feel, and the offbeat characters and settings create visual eye candy. The actors do a good job, although they don't have much to work with in the clunky dialogue. However, the fact that the movie is more design and action driven than it is a "talkie" helps things considerably.
In the end, the pluses easily outweigh the minuses. Although the film lacks some depth and polish in the story department, it's main drawback is the overwhelming strength of the visuals. The visuals and characters set the movie up as an impressive epic that should have an involving story to match. And when the story is only standard, it deflates that balloon somewhat. It's still an enjoyable ride, and can support repeat viewings, but oh, if the story could have risen to the occasion!
Blu-ray was made for movies like 9. It is a visual feast, complete with meticulously dense and textured worlds that are populated with minutely crafted inhabitants. And Universal did a first-rate job with the hi-def encode here. Detail is astounding, and the rich black levels shine (metaphorically) in the dark, apocalyptic color scheme of the film. Between the insane level of detail in the animation, to the brisk action scenes and stellar high-definition transfer, this would be an excellent showcase disc for Blu-ray players.
The audio is presented strongly, with an in-your-face DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The foley artists and sound engineers went to town on this film and envelop you with the score and environmental sounds. However, in the process the voices can occasionally get left behind. It's not a serious minus, but the attention to video quality wasn't fully carried over to audio. Unfortunately, the picture-in-picture track fares far worse, with an almost comically underpowered audio level when compared to the main film.
There are a good amount of additional items to sift through with the Blu-ray for 9, and they're divided into stand alone items and the in-picture tracks. First up are five deleted scenes for the film (SD, 7:24), which are presented in their animated storyboard state (some with or without final voicing). All of these are time fillers, and wouldn't have really added to the picture one way or the other. "9 – The Original Short" (SD, 10:33) is interesting mainly for the fact that it was a one-man show for Shane Acker, who wrote, animated, directed and edited the short. The story is an embryonic version of what eventually makes the film, and as such feels more like a clip than a full idea. There is a commentary track for the short as well, but it doesn't offer much of substance. "The Long And Short Of It" (HD, 16:28) is the standard behind-the-scenes featurette, and feels more self-congratulatory than revelatory, but does offer a good interview mix of animators, actors and production team. Both "On Tour With Shane Acker" (HD, 5:36) and "Acting Out" (HD, 4:54) focus on the animators task of bringing the story to life. Although interesting, they feel horribly rushed in their pacing, and give more a thumbnail sketch of the behind-the-scenes work than anything. "The Look Of 9" (HD, 13:12) is the anchor of this first half, and offers a genuinely engaging dialogue about crafting the visuals for the film.
The real meat of the bonus materials, however, lies with the in-picture offerings. Universal has started taking better advantage of picture-in-picture tracks lately, and the one for 9 is top notch. Featuring all-original interview footage and test animations, this track offers the best mix of behind-the-scenes explanation and story analysis. The content here is far more engaging and substantive than the stand alone bonus items, and is well worth the time to dig through. Almost as good is the lively commentary track with writer/director Shane Acker, animation director Joe Ksander, head of story Ryan O'Loughlin and editor Nick Kenway. The group give a very focused and detailed analysis during the film, offering lots of additional insights into the characters world and a lot of the visual nuances to the story. Both tracks are excellent and the clear highlights of the bonus section.
9 could have been destined for greatness, but instead will have to settle for visually stunning. Its decent-but-generic plot, and lackluster dialogue, squander the world and characters that the film sets up. But what a world it is! And if approached with an open mind, you can enjoyably look past most of its sins and get lost in a first-time director's ambitious and original-looking debut. 9 is well worth seeing, and is an easy recommendation for fans of quality computer animation.