In 2006 writer/director Shane Acker was nominated for an Academy Award in the animated short film category. The short ran nearly eleven minutes and was called 9. It was about a rag doll who is being hunted by this mechanical cat creature that is also responsible for the death of his friends. Free of dialogue, it successfully grabs you, drawing you in to see, to wonder what is going to happen. It really is a fascinating short that gives s a glimpse into this other world. Now, three years later it has been expanded into a feature film with an assist from Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, both serving as producers.
I had not seen the short until after seeing the feature, so I did not know how good the source was until after the disappointment. Yes, you read that right. I saw the film, I walked out, and I felt terribly unfulfilled. I generally try to keep my expectations under control, but it doesn't always work. This is especially true since I consider myself a cinematic optimist. There has to be something good about every movie. Well, perhaps not, but it does not keep me from hoping.
9 is one of those movies that I had high hopes for. The trailers looked absolutely fascinating. We got images of a post-apocalyptic landscape, buildings nothing more than burned-out husks, the blue skies have been muted from dirt and debris that has been kicked into the atmosphere, the only "living" things are clockwork rag dolls, and they have some other mechanical monstrosity hunting them. The look, the feel, the potential, it was enough to make a person giddy with apocalyptic joy. Then I saw the film and saw a large chunk of my hopes and dreams fall off the cliff into the rough waves below, where they cracked up on the rocks and spilled into the drink.
All right, perhaps that is a bit dramatic, but it is no less true.
The story of 9 takes place in an alternate version of our world. A machine was created and represented a great achievement in the realm of technology, but it was commandeered for military use and a war ensued. The war apparently wiped out humanity; however, before the end, the inventor of the great machine gives the spark of life to a series of nine rag dolls.
The movie picks up with 9 (Elijah Wood) waking up in the scientist's lab. He looks around, goes outside, and eventually comes across another being like himself, 2 (Martin Landau). This is when we discover that they are being hunted by a big mechanical creature. After the attack, 9 is left by himself and eventually finds himself in the presence of 1 (Christopher Plummer), the aged leader of the rag doll troupe.
9 begins to start trouble by wanting to go find 2 and find out the truth behind their existence and what happened to the rest of the world. 1 will have none of it. He makes the rules and he keeps them safe, and apparently feels that knowledge is the enemy. This conflict leads to their leaving their sanctum and discovering the truth about themselves.
The sad thing about this is that the story is not very well developed nor are the characters handled very well. Each has their specific role to play, and I understand that, it makes sense, but they are not given anything beyond that.
The movie is short. It does not even reach the 80-minute mark, including credits. I believe this is a reason that the story fails to take off. It definitely needs more time to unfold and grow. You can't tell me that this is all there is, there has to be more to explore, more to tell, more story to unfold.
You know what watching 9 was like? It was like watching the cut scenes from a video game strung together. About halfway through I began to think this would make a good video game, then I wondered if one was already out. I still don't know, but it doesn't change the facts about the movie.
The saddest thing about the whole experience is that there is so much to like about the movie. I hate having bad thoughts about the movie, but what is true is true. Let's take a look at the good things, all right?
The art design is fantastic, everything is so beautifully realized that I wanted to explore more of it; from the steampunk feel to the look of the rag dolls, there is always something to look at. Then there is the sound design — the sound is phenomenal. When you see it, pay attention to the first ten minutes or so in particular — there is no dialogue and no music, only the sounds. Listen as his metal hands clank on things, listen to the ambient noises, the creak of wood, it is just beautiful. Finally we have the story. Yes, I know I have been complaining about the lack of development, but that does not take anything away from what little there is and the potential it still contains.
Bottom line. I am still conflicted about this movie. What I liked about it, I really liked, but I cannot forgive it for its shortcomings. It is still a film with vision, a film to be admired for the direction it was heading in. There certainly is enough here to recommend, just not with my full heart.